Branson Duck Boat Tragedy Brings Up Questions of Safety

As we all know by now, there was a disastrous duck boat accident in Branson, Missouri, in which one of the amphibious boats, which have come to be known as “duck boat,” capsized and sank in 40 feet of water on Table Rock Lake during what was supposed to be a fun family outing for most of the passengers. The accident left 17 people dead, ranging in age from 1 to 70, including nine (out of 11) members of one family, who were visiting Branson from Indiana. At the time of this accident, there were 31 people on board, including 29 passengers and two crew members. Among the victims of the accident was the driver of the Ride the Ducks boat, and at least seven other passengers were injured, including two who were hospitalized in serious condition.

Discovering What Happened

Everyone wants to know what happened to cause the boat to capsize. Currently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and he U.S. Coast Guard are investigating the incident. Officials estimate it could take more than a year to find answers as to why that boat sank, while other vessels were able to withstand the five foot waves on the lake and make it to shore. NTSB expects to make a preliminary report available in about a month or so that could provide more information.

Branson, located in Missouri, about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City, is a popular tourist destination for families and those who are looking for an entertaining place to enjoy a family vacation. The area includes numerous venues for live music and comedy, as well as theme parks and other attractions. The Ride the Ducks attraction has been around for a long time, and has been considered a fun thing to do, despite the fact that they have been involved in a number of deadly incidents over the years.

After this latest incident, some Missouri lawmakers are considering enacting measures that could prevent further accidents of this nature, although few have offered specifics.

What is a Duck Boat?

A duck boat is an amphibious boat that is built to operate on both land and water. They are modeled after  the DUKW boat-vehicles once used to transport troops and supplies during WorlWar II (hence the term “duck boat”). After the war, they were modified for sightseeing.

The company Ride the Ducks Branson has changed hands in recent years, and Ride the Ducks International, which manufactured the boat, manufactured them from 1996 until 2014, when they ceased operations. One official with Ride the Ducks Branson has said, in hindsight, the boat should never have been in the water. At the same time, the official defended the company’s decision to not stop the tours based on the weather, claiming the lake was hit by a “fast-moving storm that came out of basically nowhere.” He noted that another duck boat made it to shore safely during the storm, and that his company has never had “an incident like this or anything close to it.”

The incident in Branson is not exactly the first time a duck boat has been involved in a tragic boating incident. Here are some recent examples of accidents on water involving duck boats:

  • In 1999, the Miss Majestic duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas, leaving 13 people dead.
  • In 2002, four people died when the Lady Duck sank in water that was 25 feet deep in the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. That vehicle wasn’t watertight and sank near the Hull Marina, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
  • In 2010, a tug boat pilot who was distracted by a cellphone or a laptop because of a family emergency slammed into a duck boat on the Delaware River near Philadelphia. That resulted in 35 people being thrown into the water, killing two foreign exchange students.

There have been other incidents involving duck boats outside the water. For example, in 2015 a bus crashed into a Duck 6 amphibious vehicle on the Aurora bridge in Seattle. That same year, a duck boat struck and killed a woman from Texas who was walking in Philadelphia. In 2012, the tour company Ride the Ducks Philadelphia settled a federal lawsuit for the Delaware River accident, paying $15 million to the families of the two dead victims and an additional $2 million for the other passengers. The company later shut down the business, citing skyrocketing insurance costs.

What Can Be Done?

Because of incidents like these and many others, some federal officials have been warning of the dangers of duck boats for almost two decades. In the last 20 years, there have been 32 boating deaths directly attributed to the vehicles. That may not sound like very many, when compared to the approximately 700 deaths experienced every year in the recreational boat industry. However, it’s necessary to consider there are only 118 licensed duck boats nationwide, while there are more than 12.5 million licensed recreational boats on the water.

One reason officials have been warning about the danger of duck boats for so long is because they are subject to an unusual combination of safety regulations,. This is because they are not exactly a boat and they are not exactly a bus, although they operate as both. For example, one major issue with the duck boats has to do with their canopies. Coast Guard regulations require life jackets for every passenger on a boat, but the NTSB has recommended that passengers not wear life jackets on boats with canopies because the life jackets carry passengers into the canopy, thus preventing escape. The NTSB has recommended the removal of the canopies, but duck boats usually still have them. Another example of contradictory regulations is the NTSB’s recommendation that passengers wear seat belts while on the road, while recommending no seat belts while on the water.

Ride the Ducks Branson has already released a statement saying it would cooperate and assist authorities involved with the investigation and promising to help the families affected by this duck boat tragedy.

So far, Texas duck boat operators, particularly those who run tours around Galveston island, don’t seem to have changed their operations significantly, according to reports, but it may be a good time for federal and state regulators to get involved to make sure passengers on these boats are safe and that boat operators inform passengers of the potential risk.

Awards & Accolades