Duck Boat Accident Latest In String Of Deadly Incidents Linked to Amphibious Vehicles

After a “Ride the Duck” tour boat capsized and sank last week, killing 17 people, serious questions are being raised about the safety of the World War II era amphibious vehicles, which some are calling a “death trap” in the event of an accident. 

During a powerful storm last Thursday on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, a duck boat carrying 31 passengers took on water, capsized and sank, as bystanders on shore and nearby boats watched the tragedy unfold quickly.

The duck boat accident is currently under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), but the incident is the latest in a series of fatal and non-fatal incidents involving the amphibious vehicles.

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Duck boats were originally repurposed DUKW six-wheeled amphibious vehicles used during World War II and the Korean War. Most are modified CCKW trucks designed to transport soldiers and supplies over water. After the war, many began being used as tour boats, most popularly for the “Ride The Duck” franchise.

Adding to the problems associated with duck boats, different states have varying safety requirements for the vehicles and elements designed to make them safer on the street may increase the risks when on the water. This latest incident is renewing questions about what actions can be taken to make duck boats safe, if any.

“Ride the Ducks” company was purchased in December by Ripley’s Entertainment Inc. This is the first fatal accident involving the boats since the transfer of ownership.

History of Fatal Duck Boat Accidents

Fatal accidents involving duck boats have occurred on sea and on land, but this latest incident is the deadliest recorded, and the worst incident since May 1999, when a duck boat sank in Hot Springs, Arkansas, resulting in the deaths of 13 people.

An NTSB report following that duck boat accident recommended that canopies on the vehicles be removed in vessels without reserve buoyancy, or that adequate buoyancy be installed. The NTSB indicated that if a canopy is used, it should be one approved by the Coast Guard.

In addition to those two accidents, another fatal incident occurred in April 2016 in Boston, when a duck boat was involved in an auto accident with a scooter, resulting in the death of the driver and injuries to a passenger on the scooter. Incident reports indicate the scooter was too low to be seen over the bow of the boat, but should have been visible in the boat’s blind spot mirrors.

Another auto accident involving a duck boat occurred in Seattle in September 2015, when the tour boat crashed into a charter bus, killing five bus passengers and injuring 16 others. There is currently a lawsuit pending over the accident.

That same year, in May, one of the “Ride the Duck” boats ran over a woman crossing the street in Philadelphia. Reports indicate that the woman was distracted by a handheld electronic device and walked against the red light into the bus’s blind spot. That resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Another water accident resulted in the deaths of two people in July 2010, when the engine became disabled and the tour boat was hit by a tug boat. In that instance, the duck boat was deemed to be regulated and modern, and the accident was caused by the driver of the tug boat being distracted on his cell phone. That incident resulted in a $17 million settlement for the victims’ families.

In September 2007, another duck boat in Ketchikan Alaska hit a woman on the dock, killing her.

Critics say that the blind spots, how low the boats sit in the water, and the canopy are all issues of concern. The blind spots have been linked to a number of the accidents on land, the boats appear to be easily swamped and capsized, and in the event of an incident, the canopy can trap and drown passengers even if they are wearing a life jacket.

One survivor of last week’s accident, Tia Coleman, said that the driver repeatedly told the passengers they would not need their life jackets, even when it was clear the boat was in trouble. Nine of her family members died, including her husband and three children, including two sons and a one-year-old daughter. Only she and a nephew survived from her family group. The driver of the duck boat, Kenneth McKee, did not.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol issued a complete list of occupants of the boat and whether they survived, died, or were injured. According to officials from the agency, no one was wearing a life jacket.


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