Aug. 04, 2003ROGER ALFORD
SALYERSVILLE, Ky. – Other drivers can't help but tap their brakes and check their speedometers when they see Charlie Fitzpatrick pass by.
It's a natural response to the sight of a police cruiser, even a retired one.
Secondhand police cars have become so common in Appalachia that speed-trap wary truckers have given them the nickname “Hillbilly Cadillacs.”
“You can't get much safer than a police car,” Fitzpatrick said after test driving his daughter's 1994 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, a fresh coat of white paint hiding the markings it once bore. “Plus, it has lots of room, and it handles great.”
The used Crown Victorias sell for as little as $2,000 at government auctions. A struggling economy in the mountain region has created a big demand for the retired cars, despite a national debate about their safety.
Some auto safety groups say buyers of secondhand Crown Victorias could be at risk because of what they contend is a design flaw that could cause the gas tanks to leak and burst into flames in crashes.
“Buying these cars is a bad idea,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety. “You're running the risk of being hit from behind or going off the road and being trapped in these vehicles and being burned alive.”
In the past 20 years, 14 police officers have died in crashes when the gas tanks of their Crown Victorias caught fire in rear-end collisions.
The crashes have prompted police unions and some political leaders to complain about the safety record of the cars, the most common police model with 350,000 patrol cars.
Ford contends the cars aren't dangerous, but initiated a program of retrofitting older models with plastic shields designed to better protect the gas tanks.
Rick Salyer, who refurbishes and sells the retired cruisers at his body shop in Royalton, said the used-car market in Magoffin County is nearly saturated with old Crown Victorias, most with well over 100,000 miles.
He said the cars are in demand by people who live in the economically distressed county and drive up to two hours to jobs in larger cities.
“They're comfortable,” Salyer said. “They're one of the best built cars out there, and they're really safe.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found the car meets current federal standards that require a vehicle to withstand a rear crash at 30 miles per hour without leaking fuel. The agency also said the vehicle did not leak fuel during a test at 50 miles per hour, which the agency has proposed to be the new standard.
In almost all the fatal accidents, the agency said, the fuel leaks occurred after high-speed crashes.
According to the highway administration, no such fatal accidents have been reported in the mountains of eastern Kentucky or West Virginia, where so many of the vehicles now are in civilian hands.
“This is unique to police, because of the type of work that they do,” said Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman. “We don't feel it's a concern for the average civilian who uses these vehicles.”
Ford is installing the plastic guards on police cars at no charge. They're available to consumers for $150. The guards cover objects beneath the car, such as bolts on the rear axle, that could potentially rupture the gas tank in a crash.
Joseph Fried, an Atlanta attorney who crafted a settlement with Ford in the wake of a fiery 2001 crash that killed three Florida men and injured two others, said the Crown Victoria does present a danger to civilians.
Fried, a former Atlanta police officer, said too many parents are buying these cars for their children, believing that they are among the safest vehicles on the roads.
“They trust that all available safety is built into these cars,” he said. “Unfortunately, some percentage of them is going to find out that's not the case.”