CAS Testimony Before NY Senate on Crown Victoria Fires

Statement of Clarence M. Ditlow
Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety
On Ford Crown Victoria Fuel Fed Crash Fires
Before the New York State Senate Committee
on Investigations, Taxation, and Government Operations
March 11, 2003

 

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the crash fire safety of the Ford Crown Victoria. The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) is a consumer group founded by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader in 1970 to advocate for safe, efficient and reliable motor vehicles. Since our founding, CAS has worked to improve fuel system integrity and recall vehicles with unsafe fuel systems that cause crash fire deaths and injuries such as the infamous Ford Pinto and GM side saddle pickups.1 The fundamental principle of fuel system integrity expressed by CAS over the years is at the heart of the tragedy of the Ford Crown Victoria fire deaths - if occupants survive the trauma of a crash, they should not die by fire. The engineering required to enable an occupant to survive the trauma of a 80 mph rear impact is more difficult than the engineering required to prevent a fire in an 80 mph rear impact.2

Although Ford has tried to mislead the public into believing the fire crashes in Crown Victorias are unsurvivable due to high speed, they are generally survivable because the Crown Victoria has so much crush space and strong seats to absorb the energy of the crash. By placing the fuel tank in the energy absorbing crush zone, Ford converts a survivable 80 mph trauma crash into a fatal fire crash. Last 4th of July, Cobb County GA Officer Greg Abbott's 1998 Crown Victoria was rear ended by a 18-wheel truck. The crash jammed the doors and set off a fire ball. Shielded momentarily from the flames by a Plexiglass security screen, Officer Abbott miraculously escaped without a scratch by climbing out the broken passenger window. New York Trooper Robert Ambrose and Arizona Officers Cruz, Fink and Neilson were not so fortunate and died from burn injuries or smoke inhalation. Living and dying should not depend on luck.

Safety Standard Defense: Beyond wrongly claiming the crashes are unsurvivable, Ford defends the Crown Victoria by claiming it meets present and proposed fuel system integrity standard (FMVSS 301). FMVSS 301's rear impact requirement did not take effect until 1977, is woefully inadequate and did not improve fuel system integrity. In 1990, NHTSA published an evaluation (.PDF) of FMVSS 301 (Motor Vehicle Fires in Traffic Crashes and the Effects of the Fuel System Integrity Standard) that failed to show any reduction in vehicle crash fire fatalities due to the standard. Overall, deaths in crash fires increased from 1,300 in 1975 to 1,800 in 1988 while overall traffic deaths were decreasing. Defending the Crown Victoria today because it meets an inadequate crash fire safety standard is no more valid than Ford defending the Pinto in the 1970's because it met an inadequate crash fire safety standard then. Ford claims the Crown Victoria will meet the proposed new NHTSA fuel system integrity standard which came in the tragic aftermath of the GM side saddle C/K pickup investigation in 1994. The standard is another band aid approach to crash fire safety as is shown by the fact that its very reason for existence, the C/K pickup can pass it with flying colors. All too often today, NHTSA safety standards are more often used to defend product liability lawsuits than to significantly advance auto safety.

NHTSA's Investigation: Ford also claims NHTSA's defect investigation cleared it. This is the investigation that NHTSA never wanted to open and couldn't wait to close. When NHTSA was asked to investigate the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (CVPI) by police departments and CAS, Ford sent a team of officials to NHTSA to block any investigation. According to an internal Ford memo, it "got an agreement NHTSA will not open [an investigation]." (Ford Critical Concerns Group memorandum, July 3, 2001.PDF) When a product liability lawsuit uncovered the internal Ford memo showing the private deal, NHTSA was forced to open an investigation. Even then it opened a low level Service Query that never shows up on its public list of defect investigations and for which it does not put records into the public docket.

The resulting forced investigation was shoddy, did not reflect practices in prior investigations, relied heavily on Ford and was a disservice to the police officers and public who ride at risk in these vehicles. It relied on the fact that the Crown Victoria met the weak fuel system integrity standard, FMVSS 301. In two of the most significant investigations in the agency's history, the Ford Pinto and the Firestone 500 tire, the agency rejected the defense that compliance with a standard precluded the finding of a defect and a safety recall. NHTSA relied on FARS data to purportedly show the CVPI was no worse than the Chevrolet Impala and Caprice police vehicles. As shown in our October 1, 2002 letter to NHTSA, the agency missed including six CVPI deaths due to fire in FARS. (Attachment A.) Although promising "a thorough investigation . . . within 60 days" of the missing cases, NHTSA has yet to respond. When NHTSA investigated GM side saddle pickups, GM tried to defend the pickups by showing the number of fires in all fatal side crashes was low much the same way NHTSA defends the CVPI by looking at the number of fires in all fatal rear crashes. What NHTSA told GM and should have used was the number of deaths due to fire per registered vehicle year. Ford itself provided this type of analysis to Arizona police in 2001. When done the right way, Ford's own statistics showed the 1992-97 Crown Victoria has a fatal rear crash fire rate 3.6 to 4.8 times higher than the comparable 1985-96 Chevrolet Impala/Caprice as shown in Attachment B. People survive crashes in Caprices when they burn to death in Crown Victorias. NHTSA also tried to limit the crash fire hazard to CVPI's by saying the vast majority of fire deaths were in police vehicles. It's wrong again - as many civilians died by fire in 1992-01 Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis and Town Car fire crashes as police officers.

Ford Shields: In closing its investigation without a recall, NHTSA relied on the plastic shields which Ford is providing to police department as a fix for the rear crash fires in its CVPI's. It's not adequate and the police of this country deserve better. The shields developed by Ford were tested in a rear impact by a Taurus at 75 mph into a CVPI. Although Ford proclaimed the test a success, Dallas City officials discovered it failed despite having favorable test conditions that officers with their lives at risk won't have on the highway. The lower portion of the trunk had sand bags in it – a device that every highway engineer knows is used to reduce the hazards of impacts into road abutments and would reduce the likelihood of the Taurus impact going into the fuel tank in the crash. The Taurus itself has a soft, lower front than the SUV that struck Trooper Ambrose’s CVPI. The Taurus weighs less than many vehicles that have struck CVPI’s. The shields also don’t protect all the areas which have been shown to have been punctured in crashes. Police officers deserve protection in all survivable fire crashes, not some, not most, but all.

Better Alternative: Better and more protective technology exists than developed by Ford to protect occupants of Crown Victorias. Firetrace International has developed a combination of tank bladders and flame retardants for Crown Victorias. It had a crash test conducted by Goodrich Aerospace at its Hurricane Mesa Test Track, a military testing center in Hurricane, Utah. Using a pusher/rocket sled, engineers crashed a 1970 Ford F-100 pick-up truck weighing more than 4,000 pounds into the rear of a 1999 CVPI equipped with both a Fuel Safe bladder and a Fire Retardant Panel (FIRE Panel). The pick-up impacted the rear of the Crown Victoria at 81.9 mph. Even though the CVPI contained real gasoline instead of non-flammable Stoddard fluid, there was no fire. Neither technology is radical or new. The bladder has been used in Ford's own race cars while the fire retardant has been used for years in military planes and has been tested by the Bureau of Standards in passenger motor vehicles. The Motor Vehicle Fire Research Institute has tested similar technology on GM side saddle pickups with success at impact speeds far in excess of the present or proposed safety standards.

From the Pinto to the Crown Victoria, Ford has used lawyers and lobbyists to engineer loopholes into safety regulations and oppose recalls rather than using engineers to build crash fire safety into motor vehicles. The police and the public have paid with their lives and burned bodies for the resulting unsafe fuel system. If the Federal government won't stand up against Ford, then it's up to states like New York and cities like Dallas and trial lawyers to do so. We owe it to the police who protect us to protect them.

1 CAS petitioned NHTSA to recall the Ford Pinto in April 1974 but not until June 1978 did Ford agree to a recall. The parallels between the infamous Pinto and the Crown Victoria are uncanny. Both have the same problem - a gas tank located behind the rear axle in the crush zone where any number of objects can puncture the tank, dislodge the filler pipe or severe the fuel lines. Both identified hex bolts as a potential puncture mechanism. Ford defended both using selected statistics from FARS, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Both failed internal Ford tests. Both resulted in numerous product liability lawsuits and national media attention. Both resulted in safety defect investigations which Ford fought bitterly. Ford sold 2.2 million 1971-76 Pintos and 3.0 million 1992-01 Crown Victorias. At the time of the May 1978 defect determination on the Pinto fuel system, there were 26 known burn deaths in fire crashes. There are at least 33 known burn deaths in 1992-01 Crown Victorias fire crashes.

2 NHTSA's 1971 Program Plan called for upgrading and integrating the fuel system integrity standard (FMVSS 301) into the occupant protection requirements of FMVSS 208 which was aimed at 50 mph fixed barrier protection. In its Research Safety Vehicle (RSV) Program of the late 1970's, NHTSA demonstrated that 50 mph rear barrier impacts, well over 80 mph impacts into parked vehicles, were survivable crashes with good crash management and fuel system integrity to prevent injury and fire respectively.

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