By Peter Furth
On April 30, a duck boat ran over a scooter that was right in front of it, killing the scooter’s operator, Allison Warmuth. Both she and the duck boat were at a red light on Charles Street at a corner of Boston Common, with scooter lined up directly ahead of duck boat, waiting in a right-turn-only lane to turn onto Beacon Street. When the light turned green, both vehicles started to move, but the duck boat accelerated faster than the scooter and ran it over.
People are calling it a “terrible tragedy.” Those sympathetic words usually come from a feeling of helplessness, a feeling that nobody could have done anything to prevent it. Considering it a freak accident, unpredictable and therefore essentially unavoidable, is a story that fits in well with the old way of thinking. We wring our hands and lament the loss, but then things continue without any change.
Another side of the old way of thinking is to wait for statistical evidence before making a conclusion. This is the first serious crash of this type from a duck boat in Boston, so how could we conclude that duck boats operating on city streets are inherently unsafe?
This old way of thinking stands in stark opposition to Vision Zero, the “safe system approach” to traffic that originated in Europe and that Boston adopted in 2015. Vision Zero is premised on the ideas that society should not put up with a traffic system in which human errors lead to death and serious injury, that nearly all serious crashes are manifestation of safety risks that can be identified and neutralized, and that it is the responsibility of the traffic system to neutralize those risks.
Nobody imagines that the duck boat operator intended to run somebody over; it is obvious that the operator didn’t see the scooter ahead of it. And even a casual look at a duck boat makes it obvious how that could happen – the operator is positioned high above the ground, with the deck of the duck boat extending 10 ft beyond the windshield, creating a large blind spot directly ahead of the vehicle. And because the operator sits on the left side of the vehicle, the blind spot is particularly large at the right front corner.
Is a blind spot directly ahead of a tall vehicle always a safety risk? Not while a vehicle is moving forward at a good speed – at 15 miles per hour, the area that would be its blind spot now would have been clearly visible only 1 second ago, and in 1 second it’s hard to imagine anybody entering that blind spot unnoticed. But when a tall vehicle is stopped, it’s easy for somebody to enter that blind spot – or for a person who was already there to be forgotten and then go unnoticed. That’s what happened on Nov 11, 2000, to Ruth Michler, a math professor who was a visiting scholar at Northeastern University. She was at the curb waiting at a red light for Forsyth Street where it meets Huntington Avenue, when a construction vehicle known as a cherry picker turned right on red and just ran her over. And now that’s what happened to Allison Warmuth.
Duck boats also have two of the factors that makes trucks so deadly in right turn crashes with bicycles –heavy weight and exposed wheels that allow them to run over a person and kill them even a low speed. Even more striking, duck boats lack the front bumper that nearly all other vehicles have that will push somebody out of the way before running them over. Combine those well-understood safety factors with a large blind spot, and there is strong and clear safety risk when duck boats are starting to move and when they are turning right. There have been other, similar scenarios, where a duck boat started from a stop and the driver’s ability to see a motorcyclist or other car was compromised, resulting in a fatal or serious crash.
So should duck boats be banned? Temporarily, yes – they are a clear and present danger to public health. But as a permanent solution, we shouldn’t have to choose between safety and duck boats, which are a part of Boston’s culture and tourism draw, something that reminds us that we’re a city linked to the water. We want both culture and safety, and we can have both. If the City insists that the duck boats neutralize their well-understood safety risks, does anybody doubt that technology and creative engineering can meet that challenge? Blind spot cameras have become routine on some vehicles. Bumpers and side guards can be added. And who knows what other creative solutions people might find? Solutions will cost something, to be sure, which will increase the cost of duck boat tours, but not enough to force the duck boats out of business. And if we care about safety, that means we’re willing to pay a little more for safety. Whether on foot, on a bike, on a scooter, or in a car, people have a right to a safe road system, and our government regulators should protect that right.
After a fatal crash in Seattle with a duck boat that killed 5 people, in September of 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray grounded the duck boats temporarily and called for them to be taken off the streets. City leaders also pressed for them to be required to be staffed by two people – so the driver was not also the “entertainer.” When we stick to the policy that one life is too many, it doesn’t seem like too high a cost to ask the duck boat companies to come up with an engineered solution – some combination of mirrors / cameras / audio alerts / side guards – to exist on our city streets more safely. You should write to City Councilors and the Mayor’s office to ask them to demand duck boat safety improved before they’re allowed to roam our streets.
You can listen to Peter Furth speak more on the topic of vision zero and duck boat safety – and the idea that we should not have to choose one or the other – in this WBUR interview.