Pressure mounts for recall of Ford police cruisers

 

Pressure mounts for recall of Ford police cruisers
By Myron Leven
Los Angeles Times

Printed in Cleveland Plain Dealer
Sunday, June 30, 2002
Edition: Final, Section: Driving, Page F1


Ford Motor Co. is under mounting pressure to recall hundreds of thousands of
Crown Victoria police cruisers amid reports of rear-collision gas tank fires
in which at least 10 police officers have burned to death since 1992.

Ford, the dominant producer of police cars, faces what amounts to a boycott
in Arizona, where emotions reached the boiling point earlier this month with
the fiery death of a policeman in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler.

Robert Nielsen, 25, became the third Arizona police officer to die in fewer
than four years when the fuel tank of a Crown Victoria burst into flames
after a crash. A fourth Arizona officer survived a similar crash last year
with burns over most of his body.

Nielsen's death "was the final straw," said Detective Tony Morales of the
Phoenix Police Department, which immediately suspended an order for 200 new
Crown Victoria cruisers.

Rather than wait for Ford to act, Phoenix also plans to install new fuel
systems in the 735 Crown Victorias in its fleet.

Arizona Gov. Jane Hull has decreed that the state highway patrol will not
place new orders with Ford until the issue is resolved.

Ford faces a class action suit in New Jersey demanding that the company
reimburse police departments for safety modifications.

Last week Ford officials met with Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano
to discuss the problem.

Later, Ford insisted the Crown Victoria is "a safe and effective vehicle for
police work."

But Ford state officials said they would work together to form a technical
task force would begin testing the Crown Victoria to see how it could be
made safer "in high-risk situations."

But some consumers groups were not happy. "Police and consumers need a
recall, not a Blue-Ribbon panel ... while more people burn to death in these
vehicles," responded Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center
for Auto Safety, a consumer group in Washington, D.C.

The growing flap has featured complaints of foot-dragging by federal auto
safety officials, who have been investigating the cars since November but
have waited several months before opening their probe.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began its investigation
after receiving a copy of an internal Ford memo stating that the agency had
agreed not to investigate.

Ford officials say that the cruisers have a great safety record and that
their fuel systems meet the federal government's minimum standard, as well
as the company's tougher internal guidelines.

According to Ford, the tank fires are so rare and involve such violent
collisions - typically, 70 mph or more - that they do not reflect a design
problem.

The Crown Victoria "is one of the safest vehicles you can be in," said Sara
Tatchio, a spokeswoman for Ford.

"There are no safety issues with the fuel system," she said. "This is a very
important business to us. Police work to keep us safe, and we want to make
sure we're working to keep them safe in their vehicles."

The Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is a more powerful version of the
regular Crown Victoria and has essentially the same fuel system as other
Ford "Panther" platform cars - including the Mercury Gran Marquis and the
Lincoln Town Car, along with the Crown Victoria.

The cars' gas tanks are behind the rear axle, rather than above or in front
of the axle, which, according to safety groups and attorneys for the
families of the dead officers, are safer locations.

According to these critics, the design is marginal at best for civilian
owners and wholly unsuitable for cars marketed to police - who face the risk
of getting rammed from behind when they stop on the shoulder of a road to
direct traffic or help motorists. Some of the burn deaths and injuries have
occurred this way.

Complaints to Ford about fuel-system problems in Crown Victorias began at
least three years ago.

In 1999, the Florida Highway Patrol sent Ford a report of a yearlong
investigation into rear-collision fires.

Last year, after two Arizona officers were killed and a third was severely
burned, the head of the state Fraternal Order of Police demanded in a letter
that Ford "stop ignoring the problem and fix it, even if these vehicles need
to be recalled."

A ticklish issue for Ford is how to reach an accord with police on safety
improvements without having to do the same for civilian cars. Along with at
least 10 reports of police burn deaths in the past decade, there have been
reports of similar fatalities of civilians in Panther platform cars.

NHTSA officials aren't saying when they might complete their investigation.

The agency began receiving reports of fuel tank fires from plaintiffs
attorneys and safety groups early last year. A NHTSA document dated June 5,
2001, cited reports of six deaths and two injuries and recommended opening
an investigation.

But for reasons that have not been explained, the probe did not begin for
nearly six months.

Plain Dealer auto editor Christopher Jensen contributed to this story.

 

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