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Ford plans changes to police cars after crashes

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DETROIT, Sept 27, 2002 Michael Ellis writing for Reuters reported that Ford Motor Co. on Friday detailed plans to make Crown Victoria police cruisers safer in high-speed, rear-end crashes that have been blamed in the fiery deaths of at least 12 police officers across the United States.

Ford announced its plans to begin adding in October, at its own cost, rubber and plastic shields around the gas tanks of 350,000 Ford Crown Victoria police cars in use in the United States, and offer an optional trunk package to safely store sharp-edged, heavy equipment.

"This is a significant improvement and should significantly reduce the risk that a gas tank will be punctured in a high-speed, rear-end collision," said Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, one of several states and cities that either urged Ford to make changes to the large cars or filed class-action lawsuits against the automaker.

"I think it's a significant step forward for the safety of the Crown Vic," Napolitano said at a press conference in Phoenix.

But safety advocates and lawyers for accident victims quickly responded that the new equipment should be tested by an independent party. Ford should also recall the estimated 2 million Ford Crown Victorias, and its sister car, the Mercury Grand Marquis, driven by American consumers, they said.

"We have been down this road before. In 1978, when Ford agreed to recall the Pinto, NHTSA conducted its own crash tests, and these tests showed Ford's proposed remedy was inadequate and needed to be upgraded significantly before NHTSA would approve a recall," said Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen. Claybrook served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977 to 1981 when the Pinto was recalled.

Ford shares closed down 48 cents or 4.75 percent at $9.63 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.


As with the infamous Ford Pinto, the fuel tanks on the Crown Victoria and the Grand Marquis are located behind the rear axle. The design of the large cars, the preferred vehicle of police departments, is the latest quality problem that Ford has faced in recent years, including the high-profile recall of millions of Firestone tires, many of which were installed on the Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle.

Police cars are at a much higher risk of high-speed, rear-end crashes than other cars because they pull over on highway shoulders an average of 10 times a day to make traffic stops, Sue Cischke, vice president of environmental and safety engineering, told the Phoenix press conference. Police cars are also driven an average of 10 hours a day, and suffer four times as many accidents then other vehicles, she said.

Cischke said that Ford tested the gas tank shields in two rear-end collisions conducted at 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour) and, in both instances, the fuel tank was not punctured. A small amount of fuel leaked because of compression of the gas tank, but the leaks stopped when the vehicle came to rest, Cischke said.

Ford has the toughest tests in the industry, she said, but the police cruiser is not invulnerable.

"There will be accidents in the future, and there will be leaks," she said. "No car is designed to prevent leaks in a 100-mile-per-hour (160-kph) collision, or a 50-mile-per-hour (80 kph) wreck into a fixed object like a tree."

The current NHTSA standards for rear-end collisions call for a 30-mph (48-kph) test.

The gas tank shields and trunk storage kits were recommended by a "blue-ribbon" panel composed of Ford officials and police representatives appointed by the automaker and the Arizona attorney general's office.

In October last year, Ford sent a technical bulletin to dealers addressing the "unlikely possibility" of a Crown Victoria fuel tank puncture during rear-end collisions, and describing two small repairs to lessen the risk.

Based on the bulletin, the NHTSA in November opened a preliminary probe into Crown Victorias, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars built between 1992 and 2001. All three vehicles share the same design.

But after the state of Arizona and other local governments complained publicly, Ford began working with the state towards a solution.