Fiery Wrecks put Crown Victoria under Scrutiny as Police’s Car of Choice

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Jun. 10, 2003

The Kansas City Star
Florida Highway Patrol trooper Charles Davis lifts a new trunk module into a Ford Crown Victoria patrol car in Orlando, Fla., on June 6. Davis's old car is shown in the background with a crushed rear end. The FHP is the first U.S. police agency to install the devices aimed at reducing the risks of rear-end collisions. – Peter Cosgrove/The Associated Press

Since a Missouri state trooper died in a fiery wreck last month, critics of the Ford Crown Victoria have redoubled their efforts to demand more safety measures in the vehicle.

A U.S. senator, citing the Missouri crash, has requested that a federal agency reopen its safety investigation into the Crown Victoria's design. And after two fiery wrecks since October, Dallas stopped buying the police vehicle.

Critics say the design of Crown Victorias, which locates the gas tank behind the rear axle, makes it vulnerable to fire when hit from the rear — a particular problem for police whose vehicles frequently stop on roadways.

To address the concerns, Ford modified its 2003 Crown Victorias with gas tank shields and offered the shields for older models. But the company maintains that earlier models were safe and the fires were flukes. The automaker says high speed and the unique circumstances of each wreck made the deaths unavoidable.

In an investigation that ended last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that 18 officers died after their Crown Victorias caught fire during crashes from 1983 to 2002.

But the agency also found that the Crown Victoria met federal standards to withstand 30 mph rear collisions without leaking fuel. And it documented plenty of high-speed rear crashes in which the Crown Victoria lost little or no fuel.

The Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Marquis, counterparts to the Crown Victoria, have the same internal components and layout. But the Crown Victoria has come under the most scrutiny, largely because it is used by 85 percent of the nation's law enforcement departments. Police are more vulnerable to high-speed, rear-end collisions because they are involved in traffic stops and road blocks at crash scenes.

Dennis Hon, assistant fleet operations manager for the Kansas City Police Department, said Kansas City officers overwhelmingly preferred the Crown Victoria over alternatives, according to a survey conducted last year. Officers liked the handling, roominess, peripheral vision and layout of emergency devices.

However, the vehicle's low price is the main reason why the Crown Victoria dominates the police vehicle market, said Lee's Summit police spokesman Mike Childs.

In 1996 the police-packaged Chevrolet Caprice — Crown Victoria's rival — was discontinued, leaving Ford with nearly a monopoly on the police vehicle market. Other manufacturers have since entered the market, but those vehicles haven't had time to develop a track record. Some have encountered safety issues of their own, such as brakes that have burst into flames and vehicles that have stalled while responding to emergency calls.

Independence police officers have no problem getting behind the wheel of their Crown Victorias despite the gas tank controversy, police spokesman Bill Pross said. The Crown Victoria, he said, simply may be suffering from a perception problem because police fatalities grab the limelight.

“You have to realize these cars are sitting still and getting smeared from behind,” Pross said. “I'm not sure that any make of police car would consistently withstand rear-end collision without some of them catching on fire.”

However, Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, said some officers there are a little jumpy about Crown Victorias.

“I'm always looking behind me,” he said. “And I always keep one window open because when you're rear-ended, those doors are jammed shut.”

Two weeks ago a Dallas police cruiser erupted in flames after it was rear-ended by a pickup truck, even though the cruiser was equipped with a shield, White said.

“He (the officer) was outside the car when it burned to a crisp, thank God,” he said.

Last week, the city announced it would buy no more Crown Victorias because of safety concerns.

On Friday, with the cooperation of Ford, Florida state troopers began installing Kevlar-reinforced tubs in their trunks, which are designed to organize equipment so items don't shoot forward in a crash and puncture the gas tank.

Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said even if Ford re-engineered the Crown Victoria and placed the gas tank between the axles, that would not necessarily guarantee a safer vehicle. That's because the gas tank then would be vulnerable to side-impact collisions, which occur more frequently than rear-end crashes.

In a summary defending the vehicle, Ford cited an April 2002 wreck where an officer in Romulus, Mich., was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer going 65 mph. After impact, Ford said, the tractor-trailer lost all its fuel, but the Crown Victoria's fuel tank remained intact.

In recent years, Ford has faced several lawsuits regarding the Crown Victoria, including a lawsuit by the family of a New York trooper who was killed last year in a fiery crash, a lawsuit by the city of Dallas and a lawsuit by the family of a Dallas officer.

In a June 2002 agreement with the Arizona attorney general's office, Ford launched a safety investigation of Crown Victorias after three Arizona officers died in fiery rear-end collisions in two years.

That September, Ford announced it would retrofit police Crown Victorias with plastic gas tank shields to prevent punctures from crash debris.

The 2003 Crown Victoria that Trooper Micheal Newton of Higginsville, Mo., was driving was equipped with a shield. Capt. Chris Ricks, a spokesman with the Missouri Highway Patrol, said the agency is currently investigating the May 22 wreck.

The crash occurred after Newton stopped a motorist for a traffic violation. As Newton and the motorist chatted inside the patrol vehicle, a one-ton pickup truck, pulling a flat-bed trailer, barreled into them. Newton's passenger survived the fire with critical burns on 40 percent of his body. Witnesses pulled him out through the window, but Newton didn't get out.

“If you look at the car, it appears…he (Newton) could have survived the crash if it had not burnt,” Ricks said. “The passenger compartment was still intact. Cars nowadays are designed so that you survive.”

Officials have not determined the cause of Newton's death or the pickup's speed. The highway speed limit is 70 mph.

A crucial question, Ricks said, is whether other vehicles would have withstood such a high-speed rear-end collision without bursting into flames.

But Clarence Ditlow says there is no reason why anyone should die in a vehicular fire if they survive a collision. Ditlow is the executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety, a nonpartisan consumer-watch group founded by the Consumers Union and Ralph Nader.

“You can prevent a fire death much more readily than a crash death,” Ditlow said. “These deaths are 100 percent preventable.

“I cannot think of a worse thing than to survive a crash and be trapped inside a vehicle and burn to death.”

Ditlow said the Crown Victoria has been engineered so that the body absorbs the energy of a wreck, increasing the likelihood of surviving the impact. However, he said, the engineering to prevent ruptured gas tanks has lagged.

The gas tank shields are not very effective because “they have to anticipate every possible method an object can puncture the tank,” he said.

Short of re-engineering the car, the Center for Auto Safety suggested two methods to ensure a safer vehicle — a fire suppressant device that would release a powder to quell a fire and a puncture-resistant bladder that would line the gas tank.

The Center for Auto Safety said both technologies have existed for years. Race cars have used the bladder technology, and the military has used the fire suppressant device in its planes.

However, Ford stated in a May memo that the fire suppressant system was flawed because wind and weather can affect the powder's distribution. And the bladder, Ford said, offers no advantage over the gas tank shield.

The week after Newton died, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, wrote the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to demand it reopen its investigation into the Crown Victoria.

Traffic safety administration spokesman Tim Hurd said the agency would consider the letter carefully. The agency launched its first investigation in November 2001 after it learned that 17 police-packaged Crown Victorias caught on fire and nine officers had died since 1983. During its one-year investigation, the safety agency learned of 12 additional post-crash fires and nine more officer deaths.

Hurd said the agency closed the investigation, but continues to monitor the incidents it hears about.

“This is a no-brainer,” Schumer said. “No one should have to explain how important it is to make sure our police officers have cars that are safe…Time is of the essence.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

The Star's John Shultz contributed to this report.