Other safety measures in the works for Crown Victorias

Posted on Sat, Mar. 01, 2003JOEL STASHENKO
Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. -
State Police officials are retrofitting safety devices on an allegedly fire-prone model of the Ford Crown Victoria, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pushes for that and other safety devices to be installed on all such police cruisers.

The Crown Victoria accounts for about 80 percent of police cars nationwide.

All 1,000 Crown Victoria Interceptors in New York's State Police fleet have been retrofitted with a $27 plastic shield that goes around the gas tank of the vehicle and is supposed to inhibit fires during accidents.

Last week, Clinton sought to require more monitoring and safety improvements to the estimated 350,000 Crown Victoria police cars nationwide.

"Every hour of every day, hundreds of thousands of men and women in law enforcement put their lives on the line to protect us from harm," the New York Democrat wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. "We should do all we can to ensure that as our law enforcement officers do their jobs, they are not to be put unnecessarily in harm's way."

State Police Superintendent James McMahon said Ford Motor Co. is developing a fuel bladder to go inside the gas tank of the vehicle to inhibit puncturing in an accident. NASCAR race cars have a similar bladder, he said.

Ford is also working on a device that would cover vulnerable areas of the fuel system with fire-surpressing powder in case of an accident, and on a lining unit for the trunk of the Crown Victoria. That would keep items policemen carry in the back of patrol cars from slicing through the rear wall of a vehicle and into the fuel tank in case of a violent blow from behind, McMahon said.

According to the superintendent, State Police are also "looking at other vehicles" for use as patrol cars, though the Crown Victoria dominates the market because of its roomy interior and full steel-frame construction.

Trooper Jeff Kayser, car committee chairman for New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, said the force must incorporate any retrofits that would improve the safety of Crown Victorias.

"We expressed our concern to him (McMahon) that the cars aren't safe enough and there is technology that needs to be added to the cars aftermarket," Kayser said. "Obviously, it's going to cost them some money. But we stop people every day on the side of the road. It's a huge issue for our people. Money shouldn't be an issue. Can you place a value on the life of a trooper?"

In addition to the Crown Victorias, the State Police have perhaps 100 other vehicles, including Chevrolet Camaros and some four-wheel-drive vehicles, a spokesman said.

On Dec. 19, Trooper Robert Ambrose was killed in a fiery crash when a Jeep going about 90 mph struck the Crown Victoria he sat in on the side of the State Thruway in Yonkers from behind.

The driver of the Jeep, whom McMahon said was intoxicated, also died.

McMahon called Ambrose's death a "tremendous tragedy." The trooper's family is suing Ford for $250 million, contending negligence in manufacturing the Crown Victoria.

Ford defends the vehicle, saying it has performed admirably for thousands of police forces throughout the country. Company spokesmen have also pointed out the 13 police officers who died in the Crown Victoria in recent memory perished after they were hit by vehicles going at least 70 mph.

"Our sympathy goes out to the officers' families, but we do not believe any other comparable vehicles' fuel tanks could have survived the severity of these impacts," the company said in a recent statement.

The Crown Victoria also has the government's five-star crash rating, the highest available, Ford said.

At a legislative hearing in New York last week, state Republican Sen. Dale Volker said most people who talk about protecting policemen from the kind of high-speed crash that killed Ambrose don't understand the issue.

Volker, who said he investigated many fatal auto accidents as an Erie County sheriff's deputy, asked McMahon, "Did you ever remember an accident when a car was hit at 90 mph and someone survived?"

"It's not often," McMahon, a 37-year veteran of the State Police, replied.

"That's the problem with this kind of issue," Volker said. "Any car hit at 90 mph, and you're in it, the chance of survival is nil."