A Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle has collided with a Bellair Charters bus on the Aurora Bridge. As of 1:00pm, 4 have been confirmed dead, with dozens more wounded. Injuries were likely exacerbated by the lack of seatbelts on either vehicle. The historic 6-lane, 57′ bridge has anomalously narrow 9.5′ lanes and no median or barriers.

The Aurora Bridge will be closed into the late evening for investigation of the incident and care for the wounded, and the Fremont and Ballard bridges will be closed to boat traffic. Routes E, 5, 5X, 16, 26X, and 28X will be detoured until further notice.

Most local television stations are carrying live video of the incident and its aftermath.

Our hearts go out to the wounded and the families of those who lost their lives.

97 Replies to “4 Dead, Dozens Injured in Crash on Aurora Bridge”

  1. The Times is showing a graphic indicating the duck was traveling northbound and crossed into southbound lanes at a sharp angle, impacting the bus. Very unusual situation, not a typical cross-centerline crash.

    Ducks could easily jump a central jersey barrier. They were engineered for amphibious assaults and on land they have a rather high center of gravity. If the bus wasn’t there, I wonder if the duck would have crashed off of the bridge given the momentum it evidently had and the relatively small size of the barriers.

    This crash looks un-survivable for bus passengers in the impact zone, sadly. Seat belts would not help with those impact-type injuries, though they would prevent people from flying around. Unfortunately, with 45 people on board most seats would be taken, so the impact zone was likely mostly occupied.

    It would not surprise me if the NTSB gets involved. It sometimes investigates serious road crashes, especially those on state highways and interstates that involve buses or heavy trucks. If it does investigate, it would be interesting to read the Board’s opinion on the safety of the bridge as currently configured.

    1. King 5 is reporting that NTSB Investigators were coming out to the scene. That lane configuration is bad. It needs a center median barrier, and likely reduce to 2 lanes each direction, or a 5 lane configuration with “zipper”. Transit lanes should be added for Rapid Ride.
      Separately, for a host of reasons, those Ducks should be taken out of service.

      1. NTSB confirms on Twitter that it will send a “go-team” to the crash site. This is the same type of group that responds to railroad and aviation incidents, though obviously the expertise required here will be tailored to a motor vehicle crash.

        Given a go-team has been launched, I expect the NTSB will perform a comprehensive investigation. Usually takes 8-16 months for a final report. It is a good process, though, for all stakeholders to learn how to improve safety and emergency procedures.

      2. WSDOT looked at adding a center barrier about 12 years ago. It was $30 million at the time and involved moving the sidewalks under the bridge deck. It seems to have gone on a “long term” list and was never heard from again. A center median would have slowed down the duck and would have saved some lives here.

      3. Hmmm, 12 years ago.

        Wasn’t that about when they began trying to pass a state transportation package?

        The last thing they did was the “Nickel Funding Package” in 2003.

      4. Jim, there was the “Nickel” in 2003, the “dime” ($0.095) Transprotation Partnership Account funding in 2005, and Connecting WA this year.

      5. The existing 3-lane configuration is an accident waiting to happen. Every time a bus or large truck cross the bridge, it effectively straddles two lanes anyway, so the capacity of 3 lanes per direction is more myth than reality. A center barrier and shoulders would make things safer for everybody.

        And +1 on the idea of moving the sidewalks under the bridge. Anything is better than the existing configuration where you’re 3 feet away from 50 mph vehicles.

      6. I forgot about the dime in 2005, probably because it didn’t come up for a public vote.

        And I was actually alluding to the fact that it wasn’t until this year a transportation package was passed.
        Will we get to vote on that increase?

        Probably not.

        I’ll have to check the project list for the latest, see if the Aurora Bridge project is on it.

      7. The 3-lane configuration obviously doesn’t work; it’s clear that trucks are routinely sticking outside their lane boundaries.

        Cutting this bridge down to 2 lanes each direction would be wise.

        Or you could cut it down to 1 lane each direction and put light rail in the center.

      8. A center barrier would probably have prevented the tragic accident in the late 90s when a southbound Metro bus crossed the northbound lane and fell off the bridge, barely missing an apartment building below. There was an outcry for a center barrier after that.

      9. I agree, the bridge needs a road diet, a median barrier, and transit lanes.

        As to the Ducks, i’d say let’s wait and see if the vehicles themselves, maintenance, driver training, or driver distraction were contributing factors to the accident. I certainly would support the city requiring tour operators to separate the tour guide and driver functions.

  2. Traffic violence, such a waste.

    They should consider narrowing it to 5 lanes and installing a movable concrete barrier to allow for 3 lanes in the peak direction and 2 in non peak, the third land being for buses only.

      1. Why does the E-Line only run every 2nd bus in the non-peak direction during rush hours then? They could have every bus run back and forth. That way there would be 5 minute headways in both directions during peak, instead of 5 mintues in the peak direction and 10 minutes in the other direction.

        That’s how it’s done in other cities.

      2. @CC

        The demand may still be somewhat higher in the “peak direction”, but the point is that there is high demand and traffic in both directions at some of the most congested times (such as 4-7 pm). Limiting to one lane for HOV/Bus access leaves a larger imbalance and leaves riders in the opposite direction stuck in traffic.

        It also keeps buses stuck in traffic that could otherwise be queuing up for the next peak direction run.

  3. I’ve had a few occasions to drive the Aurora bridge in a heavy vehicle, and I always just split the lanes. The Ducks especially, since they are so ungainly, should be doing that routinely. Same with tour buses where drivers don’t drive the bridge every day.

      1. Looks like the same old bridge its been for a very long time. But the City or the region never appeared to be concerned about the fact that it’s long outdated for present use. The ethos around here is “Well it still works fine, why do anything? And it will cost so much money to update.” They push aside the improvements on infrastructure for the further study that never happens.

      2. The lanes are very narrow. I feel somewhat uncomfortable driving a small car in the outermost lanes since they’re right next to a concrete wall; I can’t imagine trying to stay within the lines in a larger vehicle. When I ride buses over the bridge the driver routinely uses the two outermost lanes. They should repaint it to two lanes in each direction and put a barrier in the middle.

      3. I heard it was in the early/mid 60s when they modified the bridge to make it more freeway like and I believe I heard a casualty of making the bridge into more of a freeway configuration was the trolley bus lines that crossed the bridge.

    1. I drive a cab mostly in North Seattle and cross the Aurora Bridge several times per day. It always seems to stand out in my mind the few times that I see bus drivers driving in only one lane. Most of them are using the 2 right lanes. And, if I do see them using only one lane, it is usually the middle one. The only time I have seen them stay solely in the right lane is when traffic is just creeping along.

      That, and I have NEVER seen a Duck boat stay in just one lane. It is so common that I had just presumed that it was policy or something that they split the lanes. Or that they simply just didn’t fit.

      It wouldn’t bother me if they just re-striped the bridge with 4 lanes tomorrow. Isn’t the curb lane a bus lane anyway in both directions on both ends of the bridge?

      1. @Cascadia Bryan, the BAT lanes actually stops right before the bridge, and pick up after the bridge. I imagine it’s because a 10′ lane is too narrow for a bus. That right there should have sent up some warning signals decades ago at WSDOT, but you can tell how much they care about transit. Just look at the higher use of the bus lane towards the new tunnel portal – rather than transporting people, they can use it as a dumping ground for equipment and supplies.

      2. It is 85 years old; 2 lanes in eac direction will be fine. Further, bus and duck driving should not be done by entertainers.

    2. Agree – I almost always split the lanes. One downside: Splitting lanes like this enrages a subset of drivers who you need to keep watch for. They’ll often pass and quickly squeeze in front of me, only to slam on the brakes when they encounter the traffic in front of me.

      I can drive a Metro coach (8.5′ wide + 2 x ~6″ mirrors) in the outside lane but it is an extremely tight fit requiring that nobody in the center lane crowds me (the trick is to align your left tires with the lane marking and focus on keeping that alignment precise). I’ll make an exception when speeds are low due to congestion, nobody is crowding my lane, and there is an obvious benefit to using the outside lane, but this is rare.

  4. Oh no! I used to be a travel agent who booked both charter buses and Ride the Ducks for international school-age clients… fingers crossed the guides who were my coworkers weren’t on either vehicle today… still, it is very likely international students are among the dead right now. A total nightmare.

    I’d like to think this will be the tragedy that finally makes them do something about the Aurora bridge – it’s even nerve-wracking to take the RR-E across it, as i do daily. (Walking tonight, clearly.) My husband is all nerves every time he drives it. Barrier, lane reduction, maybe both – hope it gets done, finally!!

  5. Obviously this isn’t the sort of thing to talk about at a time like this, but 16 riders get a preview of the upcoming Route 62 as a side effect of this. Is Metro still pushing to move the 5 to Dexter? I doubt it’s making any stops in Fremont south of where it normally gets off Aurora, but it’s interesting that people in Phinney and Greenwood that have been opposing that change get to see what it’s like in decidedly sub-optimal traffic conditions.

    Meanwhile RR E is following a weird zig-zag route where it crosses the Fremont Bridge, swings over to Stone Way at 35th, then heads up W Green Lake Way to Linden north of the Zoo. Don’t know that there’s any good way onto Aurora northbound at 46th or 50th, though.

    1. haven’t heard about 5 on dexter in a long time (thankfully). that would be a really bad move.

    2. It’s okay to talk about this about it’s situations like these that test the worthiness and quality of our infrastructure. Yes, it’s tragic. However, it’s also another reminder of how badly we need grade-separated transit. Routes 5, 16, the E-Line and a handful of express routes are being adversely affected because of a single road closure.

    3. I rode the 44 home to Fremont from UW today. Once we were west of I-5, 45th was totally clear westbound while eastbound was bumper-to-bumper from I-5 to west of Aurora. It just goes to show how much traffic 45th carries between these two highways.

      I wonder if 44 reliability could be improved simply by permanently closing the Aurora ramps at 40th & 46th to anything except transit, and force drivers to go to 50th, where there is no contention with transit.

      Definitely agree that this is tragic for lots of people, but we also need to look at our serious long-term transportation issues.

    4. RR E is following a weird zig-zag route where it crosses the Fremont Bridge, swings over to Stone Way at “35th, then heads up W Green Lake Way to Linden north of the Zoo”

      That’s how the 6 went.

      1. I lived in Fremont when the 6 existed. It went north across the Aurora bridge, turned right onto Stone Way and stayed there all the way to the West Greenlake/Woodland Park playfields, then winding its way back to Aurora. It was discontinued after its express version, the 359, which did not do the Woodland/Stone Way loop, fell off the Aurora bridge in late 90s. After that terrible accident, the 6 and the 359 were consolidated into what became the 358. To make it easier for Fremont residents who no longer had 6 service, a stop was added on Aurora at the 46th Street intersection – not really of much help for those in downtown Fremont.

      2. Sorry, I didn’t see “Fremont Bridge” in Morgan’s statement.

        The 6 and 360 were already going to be consolidated into the 359 when the accident occurred, it was just about to go live. After the tragedy they renumbered the new route to 358 to retire the number 359 and memorialize it.

    5. The 5-Dexter was proposed in the context of no 62. It was going to take over the 26/28 local in the 2012 RapidRide C/D reorg, and the 26 and 28 would become all-day expresses. That was withdrawn due to local opposition, fears that the 5 would be too slow and get caught in Fremont congestion and bridge openings. It was one of two parts of reorg that was withdrawn, the other being the 2/3/4. Then it resurfaced in the cut scenarios, with a 5-Dexter, 28 express, and the north part of the 26 joined to the 30. That was obviated by the revcovery. Now that the 62 is taking over the Dexter segment (if the proposal passes as-is), I don’t think there will be any more talk about putting the 5 there, not after how unpopular it was the first time it was suggested.

  6. Personally, I would get rid of the sidewalks on both sides (they are so narrow I can’t imagine many people feel safe there anyways, and, put a jersey barrier in the middle/widen the lanes. Second, build a 12′ wide bike/pedestrian bridge either alongside or even underneath the bridge. I don’t recall exactly but there might be enough space in the superstructure to make a path underneath the existing bridge deck but that uses the existing structure. If you build it out of lightweight materials (e.g. aluminum) then it probably wouldn’t require any additional improvement to the structure.

    1. I walked on the sidewalks of the Aurora Bridge. It was very unpleasant. Cars were too close, there wasn’t much of a car-side railing so it looked like cars could just jump onto the sidewalk, and the traffic noise was deafening.

      1. There are six 9.5′ lanes, which adds up to 57 feet of width. Consider this:
        1′ sidewalk widening
        1′ barrier between sidewalk and road
        1′ shoulder
        12′ car lane
        12′ car lane
        1′ shoulder
        1′ Jersey barrier
        1′ shoulder
        12′ car lane
        12′ car lane
        1′ shoulder
        1′ barrier between sidewalk and road
        1′ sidewalk widening.

        Sounds like an improvement, eh?

      2. (If you want to be really radical, cut the bridge down to one car lane each way, and put light rail down the middle.)

      3. Light Rail is way too heavy. Even streetcars were explicitly excluded from the bridge when built because of their relatively light track structure.

      4. Extraordinarily lightweight bridge supports, then? Makes it an odd sort of bridge for 1932.

        Does the bridge have a weight limit for trucks? Because if it allows all sorts of trucks, then it can support light rail.

    2. These older bridges are usually so over designed that you don’t need anything special. A pedestrian walkway adds nothing compared to, say, a 24 inch water main or some other things that get added to bridges over the years.

    3. Or hang a sidewalk on a lower deck of the bridge and install them in cages to prevent jumping. Two problems, one solution.

    4. Used to ride my bike home on that narrow sidewalk. Coincidentally I almost got killed by a ride the ducks at the same spot as this accident. The duck passed so close to me that that its tail wind knocked me off balance and into the railing. Luckily the suicide railing had just been built, so I didn’t end up on a houseboat roof. I’ve held a grudge against the Ducks ever since. And the hill climb up Fremont Ave doesn’t seem so bad.

    5. That sidewalk is seriously scary on a bike; you feel like if anything disrupts your narrow movement you’ll fall into the cars. It’s not so bad as a ped if I remember right.

      1. @Anandakos, I’ve walked across it a number of times, and it does take a very very long time, especially when it feels like every somewhat-wider-than-average truck mirror is going to whack you in the back of the head at 50mph. Unless I really need to be up the hill, I just walk down to the Fremont Bridge and walk back up.

    6. Such a solution (moving the sidewalks to under the bridge deck, widening the lanes, and installing a center barrier) was proposed back when they were looking at general safety improvements. It was rejected due to cost. The Aurora Bridge, being in Seattle, just doesn’t qualify as a funding priority in a state controlled by non-urban officials.

      1. An international incident like this ought to raise the stakes a bit. People are dying and “there just isn’t enough money for safety” doesn’t cut it anymore.

        Projects like this are exactly the kind of safety improvement that ought to fit both in the State’s and City’s budget.

        Also, the ducks either need to be banned from the streets or much more strictly regulated. Allowing military grade steel vehicles capable of ramming through brick walls in the same street as cars and buses made of aluminum and fiberglass… while running at just barely sub-freeway speeds is not something we should allow to continue.

      2. It only looks like Military Grade Steel.

        I’m not entirely clear on the relationship between the companies, but there is a Ride the Ducks company that operates the tours in several cities (but apparently not Seattle – apparently the Seattle operation is separate but licensed name use or something) that actually builds these things.

        According to the web site of the company that builds these and operates the tours in several other cities, they started building the ones for Seattle in 1997:
        Their web site claims
        “Our Ducks resemble the WWII DUKW in appearance only. The Ride The Ducks vehicle is built, exclusively for us, from the ground-up using the latest in marine safety.”

        Therefore, it is doubtful there is any military grade anything in there.

      3. Another interesting tidbit: the Ride the Ducks company that builds these things and operates the tours in Philadelphia, Branson, and a few other places:
        If you read there job postings, it becomes obvious that they have two people on board: one to do the tour guide / entertainment part of things and the other to actually drive / pilot the craft.

      4. With the non urban insular “Hillbilly” legislators in Olympia, stakes over international incidents/disasters in Seattle are about as significant to them as the sound of crickets.

        We would have to fund improvements to the bridge regionally or at the municipal level (java tax?).

  7. It has to be challenging to safely operate one of these WW2 vintage amphibious landing crafts while at the same time trying to be an engaging and entertaining tour guide.
    Maybe the city should look at doing what San Francisco did and let the driver focus on driving by requiring somebody else to be the tour guide.

    1. The Ducks pulled out of San Francisco after that requirement was put in place. I wouldn’t really object to it, but let’s be aware.

      1. It would be unfortunate to see the Ducks go because of this because the offer a colorful touch for tourists in this city. They are quite popular.

      2. I see the Ducks all the time from the 4th & Pike bus stop. I can hear the music and singing and stupid statements from there; the song usually “Staying Alive” although now they’ve branched into a bit more diversity, two more disco songs. The driver wearing a silly wig and waving his hands back and forth and trying to get the tourists to do the same. It makes me sad wondering if the tourists know what a piece of crap they’re getting for their money. Maybe the amphibious part is nice; I haven’t seen it, but I wish they’d get a better shtick, one that isn’t so extremely annoying. Tourists, take the Argosy! It’s a straightforward pointing out of attractions, without the stupidity.

    2. If it were me I think much could be gained by not having them cross the Aurora bridge in the first place.

      The view of Seattle from the boat ramp in West Seattle is better anyway. The only thing they would miss is pointing out the house boat that was in Sleepless in Seattle. They’d gain the river that launched Boeing.

  8. SDOT apparently setup an ad-hoc bus lane on Westlake. Does anyone know whether this is part of SDOT’s response plan (if they have any for an incident like this), or if someone at SDOT is thinking creatively on their feet? If it’s the latter, I hope whoever had the idea gets some recognition.

      1. What they did makes sense. After 7:00 PM there are only half hourly buses on every line that was re-routed except the E. From that time on there were not enough buses to carry as many people as opening the lane to cars would carry.

        Sure, if there were still six buses an hour on the E, five on the 5 and 40, four on the 16 and three each on the 26 and 28, it would make sense to keep the lane for buses. But there aren’t, so they released it to cars.

        They managed it correctly.

      2. True, but there was also the 40 that runs down Westlake normally. At that point it still runs every 15 minutes, and the E runs every 12. 5/16 run every 30 minutes so that gives 13 buses/hour, which is still quite a few.

    1. I’ve worked with some really sharp engineers at SDOT. Unfortunately, innovation is killed by the bureaucracy. I would not be surprised if an engineer or even a technician at SDOT was thinking on their feet and came up with a clever solution yesterday.

  9. Glad we spent 80 mil$ on the broadway choo choo instead of bringing the aurora bridge and its north and south intersections up to modern transportation standards.

    This meeds to be fixed before we do more cycle tracks and trolleys.

    1. Rather than spending money on the Aurora exhaust pump, I’d prefer a nice, safe underground train. Though, I wonder how far $80 million would go toward either.

      (See? I can use belittling statements toward transportation modes, too!)

    2. That’s easy, just vote YES on the next statewide gas tax increase.

      Hwy 99 is a state highway, funded with either tolls, or gas tax.

      Broadway streetcar is a Sound Transit project, passed by the voters.

    3. The Aurura Bridge is a state owned bridge. The state is responsible for it, and there-I lies the problem.

  10. My condolences to the families of the victims. it is terrible to see such an event. I never felt safe driving on that bridge. It needs to be reconfigured for greater safety even at the cost of less carrying capacity.

    The ducks need to be removed from Seattle ASAP. The are a menace to the public and unsafe — http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/02/us/11-are-killed-as-a-tourist-boat-sinks-on-arkansas-lake.html

    Also note the recent scandal of the city approving a new access ramp to Lake Union specifically for the ducks — http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/ride-the-ducks-ramp-okd-ruffling-feathers-in-eastlake-3/

    I rode the duck tour several years ago for a work event and the views were spectacular and driving into Lake Union and boating around was really nice. But these unsafe 70 year old vehicles should be replaced with modern open top buses ( http://www.paris.opentour.com/en/ ) and dedicated real boats. Tour riders can disembark to transfer one to another.

    Mayor and city council, do this now. Thank you.

    1. No. While buses can fit in 9.5′ lanes, they really can’t safely go faster than 20 mph in them.

      1. Nathanael, experts in the field would disagree with you. From an article about charter bus safety in Popular Mechanics.

        “Technology upgrades would no doubt save lives, too. The bus industry has lagged behind passenger vehicles when it comes to safety advances. While annual interstate bus fatalities have risen, overall road deaths are down 25 percent since 2005 and are now at a historic low. Safer roads, stepped-up enforcement, and stricter teenage-driving and drunk-driving laws are responsible for much of the drop. But the now-ubiquitous use of seatbelts, stronger vehicle construction, and technologies like antilock braking in cars have also made a big difference.”

      2. That’s an awful lot of total irrelevancy. What I wrote is still the case.

        Charter buses are constructed just liuke other buses, and they’re really quite safe these days. The charter bus DRIVERS are another matter, they’re often very bad drivers, but that’s a different problem….

      3. I’ve watched buses trying to traverse 9.5′ lanes. They can stay in their lane if they move quite slowly (20 mph), as long as there are no turns.

        But once they start going at higher speeds, they inevitably start weaving out of the lane — perhaps because buses are typically 8.5′ wide, leaving 6 inches on each side, which isn’t much clearance.

        You can blame this on the road design, or you can blame it on the bus drivers for driving too fast. Or you can blame it on the bus builders for building overly wide buses, but that ship sailed a long time ago and there are a huge number of buses of that width; it will take decades to narrow all the buses. Those are the only things you could blame it on….

  11. Headline is:
    4 Dead, Dozens Injured in Crash on Aurora Bridge

    Responses include:
    Transit lanes should be added for Rapid Ride
    put light rail in the center
    third lane being for buses only
    put light rail down the middle

    STB bloggers using any and every chance to promote your agenda. Pretty insensitive responses for the situation. Is this blog for real?

    1. Responses also include:

      * Spend more money on fixing the bridge.
      * Add a center median barrier.
      * Reduce to four wider lanes.
      * Add shoulders
      * Move the sidewalks under the bridge deck to give more room for traffic lanes.

      Plus, commenters and bloggers are different.

      Anyone can be portrayed as insensitive if you cherry-pick quotes from a brainstorming session.

    2. @Chuck,

      I think everyone here recognizes what a tragedy this has been for those killed and injured, and their family and friends. That said, it’s a transit/transportation blog, and it’s important for us to examine the causes of the incident, and its effects on the entire city and the region. Hopefully we can learn from this, and design a transportation infrastructure that makes it unlikely for this to happen again, and to be safer and more resilient when it does.

  12. I don’t think we should focus solely on Aurora bridge from now on just because of this tragedy. We should consider all dangerous places, Aurora being just one of them.

    We also don’t know what happened. There are claims that the duck “turned sharply left” which rather suggest some sort of mechanical failures. How can we improve the vehicle and street design to lessen the related damage? I don’t think the issue is just the bridge.

    Aurora lanes being too narrow for buses and ducks–in my opinion this calls for more regulation of width. Make lanes of different width and signal clearly that vehicles wider than x must stay on the right lane. Not all lanes have to be suitable for buses and trucks.

    1. From the statements I have heard so far, it sounds like the universal joint on the front wheel went bad.

      I’ve seen this happen to about five different cars in the last few years. One was up in Mount Vernon on a very busy road and could easily have resulted in something like this. A front wheel suddenly going 90 degrees to the direction of travel is pretty distinctive.

      I don’t know what the issue is, but it seems like mechanics are maybe not checking for this particular problem too carefully any more?

  13. Why not start by reducing and then enforcing the speed limit? I understand this is a WSDOT issue but would be a simple, if short-term, solution.

  14. People use local streets, boulevards and avenues as if they were interstate highways.

    Travelling with speeds and volumes that are no appropriate for the route.

    Inadequate highway building for a metropolis that has undergone rapid population growth between 1993-2013 is the culprit.

    1. John, you really should get out more. Other parts of the country have much more of a problem with intentionally designing streets to be near highways and with excessive speed and inattentive drivers on high traffic corridors. Most of these regions have far more lane miles of actual limited access highway than Seattle.

      Building more highways just makes traffic worse and tends to cause drivers to respect other road users less and speed more when they aren’t on those highways.

  15. Does anyone have an inkling that this crash will result in action taken by SDOT/WSDOT to make changes to the bridge?

    1. I sure hope so. Depends on how much money is available and how it is allocated. They had to kill the spouse of Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz in an accident before the State of Oregon did anything about cable barriers on our freeways.

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