Tour vehicle regulation bill gets first hearing

This morning the Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee began deliberations on a bill that would restrict drivers of tour vehicles from also providing narration.

SDOT director Scott Kubly presented the bill, which is simple and straightforward:

It shall be a violation of this Title 15 for any driver of any amphibious tour vehicle, charter party vehicle, or excursion service vehicle to engage in tour narration while such vehicle is in motion on any public highway.

Narration is defined as “providing regular or ongoing oral information to passengers other than communications concerning payment of fares, announcement of stops, vehicle operation, safety or emergency procedures, occasional brief responses to questions initiated by passengers, or any communication to passengers that is required by law. “Tour narration” also does not include any communication to passengers made by a person other than the driver, or any recorded communication delivered to passengers.”

This issue is receiving attention because of the recent accident on the Aurora Bridge involving a “Ride the Ducks” tour vehicle. The bill attempts to limit “distracted driving” by tour vehicle operators, keeping them focused on safely maneuvering.

As you can imagine, the local touring industry hates this, and for good reason: it means that they would need to hire more employees to provide the narration on their vehicles (though technically they could have recorded narration). Regardless of whether it’s a 6-person van r a 60-person bus, the tour company would still need a driver and a narrator. During the public comment period, several representatives from the industry came forward to decry the proposed legislation. Their most on-point critique is that the Ride the Ducks accident wasn’t a case of distracted driving: it was a catastrophic mechanical failure of a Duck vehicle. So this bill addresses a different problem, one that is not necessarily in evidence. They also offered weaker arguments, including poorly-articulated comparisons with talking on a cell phone or carrying on a conversation in a car. They spoke to the extensive training their drivers receive, and even suggested that because the narration is memorized by the driver it requires little or no thought and simple does not distract them from the driving task. Finally, they argued that the need for the driver and narrator to occasionally talk to each other is a larger distraction than simply having the driver do the narration. All in all, they were loud and impassioned, but not terribly logical or factual — other than that the bill doesn’t address the root cause of the accident that has drawn all this attention.

The Council members present (Gonzalez, Juarez, and Burgess) were sympathetic to the “distracted driving” argument but nonetheless wanted to poke at it. Burgess, clearly sensitive to the financial burden this would place on tour companies, wondered if the issue was equally pertinent across all sizes of vehicles. Kubly countered that distracted driving in general is an increasing problem, stating that in the last year there has been an 8% increase in incidents and that 10% of all fatal collisions now involve some form of distracted driving. He was unwilling to divide the spectrum of vehicles at any useful point, though another SDOT employee did offer that vehicles above a certain size require a commercial drivers’ license because of the additional complexity. He also pointed out that drivers are free to pull over and provide narration, but they would not be allowed to narrate when the vehicle is in motion.

Kubly seemed largely unprepared to defend this legislation with data; he had none on accidents involving tour operators in Seattle. Gonzalez asked him about the existence of other studies that might shed light on the issue, such as ones that speak to whether the size of the vehicle is a significant contributor to distracted driving — or whether the size of the vehicle is inherently a form of distracted driving. Kubly had nothing.

Juarez was clearly the most in favor of the bill, and spoke to how in her view the entertainment aspect is important. “If my job is to entertain,” she said, “then it’s a problem regardless of size.” She recognized the there is a potential financial issue, but saw it as a matter of common sense. “They are entertaining and driving at the same time, and that concerns me.”

Gonzalez scheduled the second hearing on the bill, and a potential vote, for April 13. Council member Burgess, clearly the most skeptical of the three, noted that he will be offering amendments at that time. Given SDOT’s weak defense and the strong opposition, it will be interesting to see where this ends up.