September 29, 2005By Jeremy W. Peters
DETROIT, Sept. 28 – Ford Motor, acknowledging for a second time that fuel tanks in some of its large sedans pose an increased risk of explosion in rear-end collisions, offered Wednesday to provide protective fire shields to owners of
Ford will not offer the fire shields to the millions of individual owners who drive cars with the same fuel system, saying the problem is specific to the limousines. Safety advocates have called on the automaker to recall the three million Ford vehicles that have the same fuel system, which was built into recent models of the Town Car, Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis.
The automaker has begun notifying Town Car limousine owners by mail that it will provide the protection kits free of charge but that it will not pay for installation. The company said nearly 32,000 Town Cars were affected.
In 2001, Ford first acknowledged the potential for fires in the Crown Victoria when it advised police departments using a modified police cruiser version of the car on how to avoid a fire in the event of a rear-end collision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the Crown Victoria, the Town Car and the Grand Marquis the same year, and Ford later agreed to provide police departments with the same fire shield kit it is now offering to Town Car limousine owners.
The safety agency closed its investigation in 2002 after finding that in most cases, fires ignited after accidents in which the Crown Victoria was struck from behind at an unusually high speed. "Our conclusion was the rate of fires in rear-end collisions in these vehicles is no greater than in comparable vehicles," Rae Tyson, spokesman for the agency, said.
Ford said that most owners of the Crown Victoria, Town Car and Grand Marquis are not at risk because the fire hazard is specific to limousines and police cruisers, not the vehicles purchased from dealers. "With a civilian vehicle, you don’t have the same usage and you don’t have the change in the dynamic of the vehicle structure," Kristin Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman, said. In addition, Ford has maintained that because police cruisers are often parked alongside busy highways, they are more likely to be hit from behind at a high speed.
But some auto safety experts disagree about the degree of risk. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said Ford’s offer to provide the fire shields did not go far enough. "It’s a recognition by Ford that unless they upgrade the fuel system in these vehicles, there will be more deaths and more lawsuits," he said. "The only way to stop this is to do a recall."
By offering to install the fire protection kits, Ford has for the second time this month issued a major warning about the potential for fires in its vehicles. Earlier this month, the automaker issued a sweeping recall involving close to four million pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles that have a potentially defective cruise control system.
In announcing that recall, the fifth-largest by an automaker in the United States, Ford said the brake fluid could leak onto the cruise control system’s electrical component, cause corrosion and start a fire.