Popular police cars Crown Victorias prone to explode, tied to deaths

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By Pat Beall

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

 

The last minutes of trooper Patrick Ambroise's short life were spent in a Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - a car praised for its strength, hailed for its durability and known to explode in high-speed rear-end crashes .

By one estimate, fiery Ford Crown Victoria crashes have claimed more lives than the notorious Ford Pinto, subject of a nationwide recall in 1978. "Basically, the Crown Vic is a big Pinto," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington -based advocacy group.

Ambroise, who died last year, is the latest of at least 30 law enforcement officers since 1983 who fell victim to fiery Crown Victoria crashes. Five were in Florida. Another 20 escaped patrol cars that crashed and caught fire.

Ford knew there could be issues with the position of the car's fuel tank as early as the 1960s, documents obtained by The Palm Beach Post show. "Ford has known about this," said Patrick McGroder, an Arizona attorney who represented families of burn victims, including two in Florida. "They have known about this forever."

It was a Crown Victoria that Ambroise, a 35-year-old father of two, was sitting in on the side of Florida's Turnpike near Hollywood, tapping on his computer as he neared the end of his shift. A black Lexus rear-ended him.

Motorists stopped their cars and tried to put out what eyewitnesses described as a fireball. But the flames were being fed by a 9-inch-long gash in the gas tank. Ambroise, unconscious and strapped in his seat, his car door jammed shut, burned to death within a few feet of onlookers.

"Troopers think it's unsafe; they just don't really have a choice," said William Smith, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper and president of the FHP chapter of the Police Benevolent Association. "It's 'Here's your car, that's the one you are going to drive.' "

Responds Ford attorney Douglass Lampe: "Police departments declare with each and every additional Crown Victoria Police Interceptor purchase that they believe in the safety and performance" of the car . In fact, the cars remain so popular that Austin, Texas, police are spending $4.5 million to buy 176 Crown Victorias before Ford closes out the model this year.

Sales continue even though there's evidence Ford's widely touted safety system, an anti-fire device introduced in 2005, is useless in the worst fires: The fire suppressant was tested on a nearly empty gas tank. In two fatalities, including the Ambroise crash, the system failed to extinguish the fire.

"I really was dumbfounded," said Lisa Smith, the widow of Florida Highway Patrol trooper Robert Smith, who lost his life in a fiery Crown Victoria crash in 1997 outside of Miami. "We thought the problem was fixed."

And there are still hundreds of Crown Victorias on local roads with no anti-fire device at all. Of 1,714 Crown Victorias in use by sheriff's deputies and police officers in the region's six largest cities, just five are equipped with Ford's fire suppressant system.

Study offered early warning signs

At issue is the placement of the Crown Victoria's fuel tank. Unlike in newer cars in Ford's lineup, the gas tank is behind the rear axle. The result is that in a high-speed, rear-end crash, there's nothing to keep the tank from being crushed as the car's trunk buckles. Once the tank is ruptured, the gas needs only to come in contact with a spark to ignite the fuel.

By the 1960s, Ford knew there was cause for concern. In a study partly financed by the carmaker, UCLA researchers concluded placement of gas tanks behind the wheels "exposes them to rupture." An area above the axle provided a safer option, they wrote. In 1969, a Ford engineering safety memo pointed out that one advantage of locating the gas tank above the axle was that it would be "almost impossible to crush the tank from the rear."

In 1971, Ford did a cost analysis on another of its models: Engineering the placement of the fuel tank above the axle would cost $9.95 per car.

Even so, when Crown Victoria Police Interceptors started rolling off the production line in 1979, the gas tank was built behind the axle, not the above-the-axle location suggested years earlier by Ford's own in-house safety division.

Officers at risk

Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, which now dominate the market, quickly became a favorite of law enforcement. Cops practically live in their patrol cars, and the Vics, as they're known, are roomy enough to spend long hours in, are sturdy enough to handle hard use such as jumping curbs and have sufficient brute force to chase down speeders. But it's also in law enforcement that high-speed, rear-end crashes are more likely to occur, when police officers stop on the side of the road as cars whiz past, and it's in those crashes that fires ignite.

In 1983, officers started dying. Four lost their lives and three others were involved in a fuel-fed fire by 1997, when FHP's Robert Smith was struck from behind by a driver who had been drinking. His patrol car exploded on impact. Smith was killed.

Two years after that, Madison County sheriff's deputy Steven Agner was killed after his cruiser was rear-ended by a pickup and caught fire. The same year, FHP issued a report on the safety of the Crown Victoria. While not disputing the auto's five-star federal safety rating, the agency asked that Ford consider moving the fuel tank to a safer position.

Federal findings vindicate Ford

In a scathing eight-page letter, then-Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano in 2002 asked Ford to recall its cruisers. Among other things, Napolitano accused the company of misleading Arizona officials on the safety of the car, particularly a Ford demonstration showing it could withstand rear-end impacts. However, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration closed its own months-long inquiry finding there was no defect. Ford declared a clear victory.

That year, four more officers died, including Columbia County sheriff's deputy Jeff Davis. Davis swerved to avoid three children walking on the side of a road. The rear of his patrol car struck a pine tree and burst into flames. He died the following day, his birthday.

Though no Florida law enforcement officer died in a fire-involved crash in the next four years, six died in other states. Then, in 2007, a Jacksonville police officer's car erupted in flames after its rear end slammed into a traffic signal pole. The officer died from a broken neck. In 2008, 31-year-old Hollywood police officer Alex Del Rio's car swerved off the road to avoid hitting a taxi while in a chase, struck a tree in the median and burst into flames. Last year, Patrick Ambroise died.

Safety measures added

Despite its position that the cars were safe, by 2003, Ford was selling trunk packs. The packs shield the gas tank from items in the trunk, such as police radios, which might puncture the gas tank on impact. Fire suppression systems were sold as add-ons to cars by 2006, and the Florida Highway Patrol was among the first to buy them at a cost of between $2,499 and $3,499 per car.

But the protective measures didn't always protect.

In 2009, Faith Mascolino, a 45-year-old mother of five, was pulled over for drunken driving outside Tucson, Ariz. Mascolino was put in the back of one of two patrol cars on the scene. While the officers talked, a Nissan Altima roared up from behind, slamming into the parked patrol car where Mascolino sat handcuffed. The rear of the car burst into flames. Mascolino died.

The police car Mascolino was sitting in had been equipped with a fire suppression system. So had Ambroise's car.

Ford's anti-fire system tests worked - but in tests with just 200 ounces of gas in the tank, according to company documents. That's less than 2 gallons.

It's not a real-world scenario, said FHP's William Smith. "Troopers are always trained to keep their tank full," he said. "You might have to respond to something; you can't very well stop and get gas."

Ambroise, Smith said, had filled up his gas tank 45 minutes before the crash that claimed his life.

Bottom line, said Mark Arndt, an independent Arizona transportation safety consultant: "It's not going to work all the time."

Most have no protection

Hundreds of patrol cars don't even have that level of safety. FHP still has 424 Crown Victorias in service without a fire suppression system. All are slated to be rotated out of the fleet within the next two years. Locally, some officers get hand-held fire extinguishers, but of the six major area law enforcement agencies polled by The Post, just five of 1,714 had a Ford fire suppressant system. Of those, more than 1,400 were bought after 2005, the year Ford started offering the systems, and long after problems with the Crown Vic surfaced.

While cost can be a consideration, it is not the only factor. There's skepticism that any anti-fire system is needed. For instance, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw points to Ford's trunk packs as a major safety improvement. "We knew the concerns, but Ford rectified the situation" with the trunk packs, he said.

Ford points to market share

Crown Victorias are involved in more high-speed, rear-end crashes because of the math of market share, says Ford's Lampe: There are more of them on the road than other types of police cruisers, and so there are more crashes . The modern Crown Victoria passes Ford's own 75-mph rear impact test without catching fire, he pointed out. And Ford maintains that nothing can be done to prevent fire in ultra-high-speed rear-end crashes.

Take the death of Faith Mascolino. The car that struck the patrol car where Mascolino sat handcuffed was traveling at an estimated 100 mph.

Most important, says Lampe, are three independent judgments about the safety of the car. In two court cases on the gas-tank issue, juries found for Ford. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's inquiry found no safety defect, concluding that the risk of fire was comparable to similarly built vehicles. And the Florida Highway Patrol has concluded that "there is no definitive report that indicates the vehicle is inherently unsafe."

Internal memos stating safety was best-served by placing gas tanks elsewhere are irrelevant in part because they were written years before the Crown Victorias went into production and applied to other cars, Lampe said. The over-the-axle tank location never has been widely implemented by any manufacturer, he said. Further, there are other safety considerations besides placement of the gas tank: The car's structure and overall design are key to protecting the gas tank as well, Lampe said.

And the limited amount of fuel used to simulate fire in the anti-fire system tests reflected the degree of fire suppression deemed to be reasonable. "We could put out a larger fire if the entire trunk was devoted to a fire suppressant system, but then it would not be a police car," Lampe said. From the beginning, he emphasized, the carmaker has cautioned that its fire system has limits. "We have done all that can be asked to make this car as safe as we can for those in a very dangerous job," Lampe said.

Competitors rolling out

Not everyone is convinced by Ford's arguments. Patrick Ambroise had no broken bones or other signs of trauma suggesting an ultra-high-speed crash . In fact, the official report concluded the car that struck his was going no faster than 70 mph, a point Ford disputes. As for having a fire-risk record comparable to similarly built vehicles, those vehicles involved in the highway safety administration's comparison also had a gas tank behind the rear axle. "Whether they are comparable to anything, the fact of the matter is these vehicles starting back in early '80s were burning up police officers," attorney McGroder said.

If the Crown Victoria is eventually muscled off the road, it may not be for safety concerns. Newer entries are making inroads.

Boynton Beach, for instance, did a cost-benefit analysis on fuel use and overall cost of the Chevrolet Impala vs. the Crown Victoria, spokeswoman Stephanie Slater said. The results showed savings with the Impalas. Today, Crown Victorias make up just 56 of the town's fleet of 194 cars.

Even Ford is getting out of the Crown Victoria business. Production permanently winds down late this year, as the automaker gears up to promote a Ford Taurus for police work. Customer preferences change, Ford's Lampe said of the decision.

But Crown Victorias aren't going to disappear from the roadways anytime soon. There are an estimated 300,000 still in service nationally. FHP's Smith drives one of them. Stopped on the highway, he says, "I spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror."