New “Ride the Ducks” bill moves forward

This morning the Council introduced a new version of an ordinance that would restrict live narration on some tour buses, and liked it enough to move it out of committee and on to the full Council for approval.

Two weeks ago the Gender Equity, Safe Communities, and New Americans Committee reviewed the first version of the ordinance as drafted by SDOT. That version would have prohibited live narration by drivers on all tour buses in Seattle in the name of avoiding distracted driving. During the public comment session, owners and operators of tour bus companies decried the bill as a dramatic overreaction to the accident on the Aurora Bridge involving a Ride the Ducks vehicle — and they had a point, given that the accident was caused by a mechanical failure, not by distracted driving.

The new version, introduced today by Council member Tim Burgess, only applies to “open air” tour vehicles. The logic behind the change is that those vehicles, including all the Ride the Ducks ones, intrinsically create other distractions for the driver, including the possibility of interacting with pedestrians and the necessity of policing passengers¬†extending their arms (and other things)¬†out of the vehicle. It also suggests that open-air tour vehicles create additional distractions for other drivers on the road, and that the open-air nature of the vehicles increase the risk of a passenger being ejected from the vehicle if an accident occurs.

During today’s public comment session the same litany of tour bus operators stood up and spoke, but this time threw their support behind the new version of the bill (and effectively threw Ride the Ducks under the proverbial bus), knowing it will have no effect on their own buses since they are not open-air vehicles. It also will have little effect on Ride the Ducks, since under an MOU signed with the city the company has already agreed to add a second staff member to its tours to provide the narration. In addition, it still doesn’t address the root cause of the Ride the Ducks accident.

Which raises an excellent question: why exactly is this ordinance being put forward at all? I suppose the Council members would argue that it’s future-facing, in case other open-air tour companies start up. It also provides for additional penalties beyond what is in the MOU should the Ride the Ducks folks violate the terms of its agreement with the city. But in the short term, nothing will happen.

Scott Kubly, SDOT Director, was present at the table along with some of his staff to answer questions from the Council; but all the questions were directed to the member of the Council’s central staff who shepherded the substitute version through (and wrote a very thorough memo explaining all the changes in the new version). Kubly et al just sat there quietly (though given his ongoing ethics probe, a meeting where he is not asked any questions no doubt qualifies as a “good meeting”).

The Council member present quickly and unanimously voted to recommend the ordinance to the full Council for approval. Since it was a substitute version, there are some procedural complications moving it forward so it will be a week and a half before it makes it to the Monday afternoon meeting where it will assuredly sail through.