Recall Pressure Rises Against Ford

 

LA Times June 22, 2002

RECALL PRESSURE RISES AGAINST FORD
Autos: 10 police officers in Arizona have died in fiery crashes in Crown Victorias. Firm says fuel system is safe.
By Myron Levin, Times Staff Writer

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 died since 1992. Ford, the dominant producer of police cars, faces what amounts to a boycott in Arizona, where emotions reached the boiling point last week with the fiery death of a policeman in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler.

Robert Nielsen, 25, became the third police officer in Arizona to die in less than four years when the fuel tank of his Crown Victoria burst into flames after a crash. An officer in the state survived a similar crash last year but suffered burns over most of his body. Nielsen's death "was the final straw," said Det. 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 plans to install new, and purportedly safer, fuel systems in the 735 Crown Victorias in its fleet.

Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull has told the state highway patrol not to place new orders with Ford until the issue is resolved.

Ford executives said 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. Ford said the tank fires are so rare and involve such violent collisions--typically 70 mph or faster--that they do not reflect a design problem. The Crown Victoria "is one of the safest vehicles you can be in," and "there are no safety issues with the fuel system," said Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio.

Arizona Atty. Gen. Janet Napolitano is scheduled to meet Tuesday with top safety executives of Ford in Dearborn, Mich. In a stern letter in March to Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., Napolitano said the company's failure to take "affirmative action ... is highly disturbing."

Tatchio declined to say what may come out of the meeting with Napolitano--only that Ford plans "to do what's right." "This is a very important business to us," Tatchio said. "Police work to keep us safe, and we want to make sure we're working to keep them safe in their vehicles."

Ford also faces a class-action lawsuit in New Jersey that seeks reimbursement to police departments for safety modifications.

The growing flap has featured complaints of foot-dragging by federal auto safety officials, who have been investigating the cars since November but 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 the agency had agreed not to investigate.

With about 80,000 of the cruisers sold each year, Ford has 85% of the police market. About half a million of the cars, known as Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, are on the road. The car 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 Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car.

The car's gas tank is behind the rear axle rather than above or forward of the axle, which is a safer location, according to safety groups and lawyers for families of dead officers.

According to these critics, the design is marginal at best for civilian owners and unsuitable for cars marketed to police, who face the risk of getting rammed from behind when they stop on road shoulders to direct traffic or help motorists. Some, though not all, of the deaths and injuries from burns have occurred under this scenario. The tank "is in a bad location, so what did they do to protect the tank? They did nothing," said Glenn C. McGovern, a lawyer for the family of Hung Le, a Louisiana state police officer who allegedly burned to death after being rear-ended in 1998.

In October, Ford issued a service bulletin advising repair shops to change a bolt and a metal tab that are thought to have punctured or ripped fuel tanks in some of the wrecks. Critics called the action inadequate, noting that Ford did not notify all police and civilian owners and did not agree to pay for the modifications as it would do in a formal recall. Moreover, they said, the fixes are too minor to solve the problem. They have called on Ford to add protective shields or install new tanks with a bladder, or protective inner liner, as Phoenix plans to do. Ford has resisted, saying the measures might create safety problems, such as a shield that might puncture the tank in a crash.

Although the debate has become more shrill in recent days, the controversy has been around for years.

In August 1999, the Florida Highway Patrol sent Ford a report of a yearlong investigation of rear-collision fires. The report highlighted the tank's behind-the-axle position and suggested reinforcement with a safety shield or bladder. Last year, after two Arizona police officers were killed and a third 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 last decade, there have been several reports of similar fatalities of civilians in Panther platform cars.

For their part, NHTSA officials aren't saying when they might complete their investigation. The agency began receiving reports of fuel tank fires from plaintiffs' lawyers and safety groups early last year. An NHTSA document dated June 5, 2001, said the agency had 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.

An internal Ford memo said that in July 2001, Ford executives had spoken to NHTSA and "got an agreement NHTSA will not open" (link, p.3, .PDF) an investigation. Soon after, the memo was obtained by David Perry, a Texas lawyer who represents some of the fire victims. He sent it to NHTSA in late October. The investigation began the following month. Allan J. Kam, a former senior attorney for NHTSA and a consultant to Perry, said NHTSA officials must have been "disturbed to learn that a manufacturer had asserted that NHTSA had made such an agreement."

But NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge could not be reached for comment, and agency spokesman Rae Tyson said NHTSA's investigation is continuing and "we have nothing further to say about it at this point."

 

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