Duck-boat safety still a question mark

The duck boats have returned to the Delaware despite safety questions. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press)

On a holiday weekend, Philadelphia can expect that many tourists will want to enjoy the duck-boat rides on the Delaware River.

But their joy might be dampened considerably if they find out what federal transportation officials had to say about last year’s fatal collision of a duck boat and a river barge.

A panel of experts ruled that crew members’ being distracted by calls, texts, and online surfing led to the July 7 collision and sinking of the duck boat. Two Hungarian tourists, Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, died when the duck boat sank.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in its June 21 ruling that distracted operators — whether on land or water — have led to many other accidents probed of late by the agency.

Every day, millions of motorists risk serious accidents by fiddling with phones and other gadgets while driving. That’s why New Jersey lawmakers joined those in other progressive states in instituting a ban on handheld devices by drivers — a safeguard that Harrisburg lawmakers should enact for Pennsylvania roads.

Fortunately for duck-boat riders, they won’t have to rely solely on boat crews’ adhering to commonsense rules about paying strict attention to what’s happening around them on the river.

New operating procedures put in place after the mishap should minimize the likelihood of a stalled duck boat being in the path of another barge. For one thing, the duck boats are supposed to be restricted to a smaller area of the river. Better training, inspections, and a standby rescue boat also should provide a better margin of safety.

Ride the Ducks officials plan to pay tribute to the accident victims with a one-day suspension of tours on the first anniversary date. They’re also pledging a much-warranted review of the NTSB findings to determine if more safety precautions are in order.

The duck-boat firm and, indeed, every operator of a vessel on the Delaware should look for ways to address crew distractions from cell phones and other electronic devices that, as one NTSB official said, are “becoming the new DUI.”