Reported deaths don’t add up

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Analysis finds more fatal, fiery wrecks
December 8, 2003
By Jennifer Dixon and Megan Christensen
Free Press Staff Writers

When federal regulators cleared the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car of any safety defects last fall, they blamed fiery rear-impact crashes for just 16 deaths in sedans built between 1992 and 2001. But the Free Press has found that about 30 people died in fiery rear-end crashes in the vehicles during that time — and at least 69 have perished since Ford Motor Co. launched the Panther platform in 1979. The Crown Vic, Grand Marquis and Town Car share that platform, or basic mechanical underpinnings.

Ford acknowledges 18 police fatalities in fires caused by rear-impact crashes involving its Crown Victoria police cruiser — a specially equipped version of the sedan — but has declined to discuss the number of civilian casualities.

The Dearborn automaker says raw fatality numbers are not an accurate measure of the cars' records and that, overall, they have an impressive safety history. Several factors, Ford says, must be considered when assessing the cars' records, including the number of miles driven each year or hours on the road. “The rate of somebody being injured or killed in a Crown Vic is no more risky or is not greater than other vehicles,” said Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering.

A string of rear-impact, fuel-fed fires in the Crown Vic prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate the car in late 2001. The agency included the Grand Marquis and the Town Car in the probe because they share the Panther platform.

Ford said police are exposed to greater risk than civilians. For instance, Ford said, police cars are driven 10 times more hours a day and four times more miles per year than civilian vehicles; police use their cars more often during high-risk, nighttime hours, and police stop along highways at least a thousand times more per year than nonpolice vehicles.

Even under those conditions, Ford said, the rate of rear-impact fires in the Crown Vic Police Interceptor is comparable with other makes and models. The company says the Crown Vic police cruiser has an incident rate of one fire out of 1,000 rear-end crashes, while the Ford Taurus has a rate of 1.1 out of 1,000. The Taurus also is used in police work, but its fuel tank is under the passenger compartment. The Crown Vic's tank sits behind the rear axle — making it vulnerable, critics say, to being punctured in rear-end crashes.

A Free Press computer-assisted analysis of fatalities that had been reported to the federal government between 1994 and 2002 found that Panther vehicles caught fire twice as often as other vehicles in rear-end crashes. About five out of every 1,000 Panther platform cars caught fire in fatal rear-end crashes. That compares with a rate of two in every 1,000 among all vehicles. In any event, such crashes are rare. The Panther cases accounted for just six of every 100,000 vehicles involved in all types of fatal accidents.

Pat McGroder, a Phoenix lawyer who has sued Ford in several deaths, said that for Ford to suggest that the death of “one police officer in a Crown Vic is statistically insignificant is an insult to the victims, the families of the victims and law enforcement officers all across this country.”

For its investigation, NHTSA looked at the number of fires in fatal rear crashes in the Ford vehicles and the Chevrolet Caprice, built by General Motors Corp. The Caprice also was used as a police vehicle. GM discontinued it in 1996. NHTSA said the Ford cars had a fire in 8 percent of fatal rear-end crashes; the Caprice had a rate of 6.3 percent.

NHTSA relied on a faulty database of deadly crashes, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, while investigating the Ford cars. The agency's spokesman, Rae Tyson, acknowledgedthe records were flawed. NHTSA investigators, he said, “didn't really depend on FARS for the data because there's so many shortcomings with it. They depended largely on information they gathered independently or were able to gather from Ford.”  Tyson said the agency always asks the manufacturer for information. “We conducted a very thorough investigation and are comfortable and confident in our conclusions,” Tyson said.

But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said NHTSA never should rely on a carmaker when assessing vehicle safety. “The manufacturer has a vested interest in producing as little information as possible,” Ditlow said.

Contact Jennifer Dixon at 313-223-4410 or [email protected]. Contact Megan Christensen at 313-222-8851 or [email protected].