OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A Seattle tour company involved in a deadly crash in September must gain approval of a safety plan by the end of next month or else risk being put out of business, but in the meantime, Ride the Ducks of Seattle will be allowed to resume operating a limited fleet of its amphibious vehicles.
After a three-hour hearing Monday, the three-member Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission approved a joint stipulation that allows the company to resume operations of its "Truck Duck" vehicles.
"Truck Duck" vehicles have a different manufacturer, chassis and axle system than the "stretch duck" vehicle involved in the Sept. 24 accident in which five international college students were killed when the repurposed military "duck boat" swerved into an oncoming charter bus on the Aurora Bridge, a six-lane span with no median barrier.
The company's operations were suspended by the commission days after the accident.
"Our sole inquiry at this point is to determine whether an immediate danger to public safety still exists that the commission must prevent or avoid," commission chairman David Danner said Monday. "We conclude that no immediate danger to public safety exists that requires continued suspension of the entirety of Ride the Ducks' certificate."
Stretch duck vehicles, like the one involved in the accident, are still barred from the road until the company demonstrates that those vehicles pose no threat to public safety, he said.
Ride the Ducks of Seattle owner Brian Tracey told the commission that he doesn't have a timeframe on when the 10 vehicles could be on the road, saying that drivers will need to be retrained and he wants to "make sure everything we're doing is perfectly buttoned down before we're up and running again."
Under the agreement, the company must submit a safety plan and have it approved by Jan. 29. If their plan is accepted, the company's safety rating will be upgraded from "unsatisfactory" to conditional, contingent on follow-up investigations. If they fail to provide an adequate plan, they will be put out of service and prohibited from operation, said David Pratt, the commission's assistant director for transportation safety.
Commission staff found 442 violations and has recommended penalties against Ride the Ducks Seattle, but those won't be considered until a later hearing.
Pratt told the commission that 90 percent of the violations were related to record-keeping. Others were more serious, including failures to conduct random alcohol testing of drivers, drivers violating limits on how many hours they can work on consecutive days, and one driver's failure to have an updated medical examiner's certificate.
Tracy said he takes "complete responsibility" for the company's shortcomings.
"We've already addressed many of the problems and we're going to make sure we fix every one of them," he said.
He noted that the company has decided to no longer use the Aurora Bridge on their routes but would work with the city of Seattle to determine final routes. He also said the company is adding a second crew member so the driver can focus solely on operating the vehicle.
Those vehicles also will be equipped with cameras that give drivers a 360-degree view. Ride the Ducks of Seattle also has hired a national compliance expert to ensure it is following all safety protocols, Tracey said.
In a written statement issued after the decision, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray wrote that he still has "significant reservations about the safety of the Ducks operating on the streets of Seattle."
Murray said that the city and the company will continue to discuss possible routes allowed for the vehicles and that city officials are considering additional regulations to address safety concerns.
Tracey told the commission that "there isn't a moment in the day that I don't think about the people who were injured in the accident and the families that have lost loved ones."
"There are no words I can offer to them to make their burden any lighter or their pain any less," he said, but he promised that he would continue to work to make his tour company "the safest in the nation."