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Debate Rages Over Crown Victoria's Role In Officers' Deaths

Jul 14, 2002 | The Arizona Republic

Three Arizona police officers have burned to death in the past three years. Another, Phoenix police Officer Jason Schechterle, lived through the fire but was horribly disfigured and faces years of surgeries and facial reconstruction.

Four officers, four explosions.

One car.

Each patrolman was driving a Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, a specially built sedan with heavy-duty features designed for police work.

The Arizona patrolmen aren't alone. Nationwide, at least nine more police officers have died in fiery rear-impact collisions in Crown Victorias. When you add in civilian fire deaths, including those in the similar Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car, the figure climbs to as many as 38.

The recent death of Chandler police Officer Robert Nielsen has galvanized criticism and focused debate: Does the Crown Victoria have a fatal flaw?

The Crown Victoria does have a serious design problem with its fuel tank, according to national auto-safety experts, public officials and automotive engineers contacted by The Arizona Republic. They say the car's vertical fuel tank, which first appeared in the 1966 Galaxie, is located within the car's "crush zone," where it is prone to puncture, leakage and deadly fires in rear-impact crashes.

And Ford, they say, has not eliminated the critical flaw despite repeated evidence dating to the 1960s, including the auto company's own internal crash tests.

"The fuel-tank fire hazard is something that should have been designed out of these vehicles long ago," said Byron Bloch, a Potomac, Md., auto-safety activist.

Phoenix attorney Pat McGroder, who represented some of the victims and their families in settlements against Ford, said he is "on a personal crusade" to fix the problem.

"We think the susceptibility of fuel-fed fires upon rear impact of Crown Victorias is much greater than any other vehicle on the road," McGroder said. "The problem is the fuel-containment system and its design that create a situation where these officers are burning alive."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating the Crown Victoria in November, spokesman Rae Tyson said. He said he could reveal nothing about the ongoing investigation.

Ford insists car is safe

Ford insists that the Crown Victoria has an excellent safety record, and that the vertical, behind-the-axle fuel tank has proved safe and reliable after many years in service. Fire deaths are still rare, said Sara Tatchio, a Ford spokeswoman in Dearborn, Mich.

"I don't feel we need to defend ourselves," Tatchio said. "We have a very safe vehicle. The real world data supports that."

But data on crash fatalities from the safety administration from 1994 to 2000 showed the Crown Victoria had almost twice the rate of fires in rear-impact fatal collisions when compared with all other cars combined.

"If you survive the trauma of a crash, you should never die of fire," said Clarence Ditlow, who heads the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. "It just shouldn't happen."

Ford notes that the Crown Victoria has passed federal safety standards for rear impacts, as well as Ford's more stringent crash tests. Ford engineers subjected the Crown Victoria to more than 51 such tests from 1993 to 1997.

But the safety proponents say the 25-year-old federal standard, which mandates a 30-mph crash with a moving barrier, is far too lenient for today's traffic speeds. Even Ford's own 50-mph standard is too low, they say, especially as it relates to police cars.

Activists want a recall

Safety activists and public officials have demanded that Ford recall the Crown Victoria, as well as the Grand Marquis and Town Car, to address the problem: a vertical gas tank sandwiched between the trunk and the rear axle and suspension, where it is exposed to crushing forces and jutting parts that can puncture and tear the metal, allowing the explosive fuel to spew out.

"The fundamental flaw in these vehicles is the location of the tank, the same flaw for which Ford has been repeatedly hit with punitive damage awards in rear crashes of Pintos and Mustangs," said Ditlow, whose private agency was founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader.

Ditlow noted that more people have been killed by post-collision, fuel-fed fires in Crown Victorias than in Ford Pintos, which were involved in a much-publicized recall in 1978 to fix gas-tank faults. About 26 people were killed in Pintos or similar Mercury Bobcats during about eight years of production. As many as 38 have been killed in Crown Victorias, Grand Marquis and Town Cars over 20 years.

Tatchio, the Ford spokeswoman, said the fires happen more often in Crown Victorias only because they are the prevalent patrol car used by police agencies. The cars are used in dangerous circumstances, she added, and civilian drivers should not be concerned.

"They (post-collision fires) are happening in police vehicles at very high speeds," Tatchio said. "That's not how my dad, who drives a Crown Victoria, uses his car."

But not all of the fires were the result of extremely high-speed crashes. The speed estimated by the Department of Public Safety of the car that crashed into DPS Officer Juan Cruz's car was 66 mph.

Ford says the speed was more in the range of 72 mph.

Victoria a throwback

The Ford Crown Victoria is something of a throwback among American automobiles. A large sedan with a V-8 engine and rear-wheel drive, it's the last of its breed, along with Grand Marquis and Town Car.

Its old-fashioned design, with a heavy, full-perimeter frame, muscular engine, spacious interior and trunk, and solid rear-drive axle, makes it ideal for police work.

Crown Victorias are estimated to make up 85 percent of the nation's police fleet, with about 400,000 of them in use. About 1,800 police agencies use the Fords, and the vehicles are a favorite for cab companies, many of which purchase used police cars.

Although every other system in the Police Interceptor has been beefed up, said retired fuel-systems engineer Ron Elwell of Scottsdale, the fuel tanks remain the same as regular civilian models. In fact, the Crown Victoria's fuel-tank configuration is essentially the same design that appeared on Galaxie models in 1966 on what Ford labeled the Panther platform.

Elwell said he was surprised even then at the fuel tank's precarious location. In the current sedan, the tank is within the car's "crush zone," the area that's supposed to absorb the shock of a crash.

"In that location, you might as well set up a bunch of whirling saw blades," said Elwell, who worked for General Motors for 30 years before becoming a private consultant and expert witness. "It's (the fuel tank's) just waiting to be pushed forward into one of those impaling surfaces."

Bloch says the problems with the fuel tank location were revealed repeatedly in Ford's internal and independent crash tests during the past 36 years. Ford's records include reports of crash tests that showed the tanks were susceptible to punctures from rear-axle and suspension protrusions.

The Ford internal documents were provided to The Republic by McGroder, Elwell and Bloch, who obtained them from public court records.

In the 1966 crash test, the vertical fuel tank was punctured by a suspension component called the track stud, which produced an inch-long cut in the tank that allowed fluid to gush, the report says.

In July 1968, a UCLA team led by Derwyn Severy performed a study on a 1967 Galaxie while under contract with Ford. The test showed that the vertical tank was prone to crushing and puncture damage when struck from behind by an identical sedan at 55 mph. The team also tested an above-the-axle tank, which was a relative success.

"The authors deemed that a tank in this location would be in an improved, protected area," the report concludes.

Problems in tests

In a 1970 test, trailing-arm brackets on both sides of the tank produced punctures. The tank also was punctured on its upper corners by parts of the trunk and spare tire.

A January 1995 crash test, in which a Taurus station wagon was crashed into the rear of a 1996 Crown Victoria at 50 mph, resulted in a major fuel leak when the tank was punctured by a side frame rail that bent on impact.

That test resulted in Ford installing two polyethylene shields on either side of the tank to prevent punctures from the frame rails. But that fix lasted only a short time and was removed for 1998 models.

Critics see this as evidence that Ford recognized a problem, came up with a solution, but abandoned it in just two years. Tatchio countered that in the '98 sedans, the problem was resolved with a redesign.

"The way it was punctured by that frame rail could not have happened any longer," she said.

In 1971, a double-walled fuel tank was tested by Ford engineers and proved resistant to punctures and leakage. That tank was never put into production. Ford engineers also drew up plans for an above-the-axle fuel tank that was never implemented.

Bloch performed his own test in Phoenix in 1975 that showed the fuel tank was prone to crash damage. His tests, he said, proved that a tank located ahead of the axle with an integral bladder could prevent gasoline leakage in a high-speed crash.

"It demonstrated conclusively that you could have survivability in the 60-mph-plus range," said Bloch, an engineer who has spent 30 years as an independent consultant and expert witness in auto safety design and crashworthiness.

The Ford spokeswoman said that because of the Crown Victoria's solid-axle, rear-drive system, an above-the-axle tank would not be practical. It would impede movement of the axle, Tatchio said, and would have a total capacity of just 9 gallons, compared with 19 gallons currently.

A tank placed in front of the axle would have similar issues, she added.

She also said that all the crash tests were product-development tests that helped Ford find potential problems and design them out of the car.

"The whole point of development tests is to raise these kinds of issues," she said. "Anything we saw (go wrong) we dealt with and have not seen occurring in the field."

In all of Ford's current lineup of passenger cars, except for Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, Town Car and Mustang, the fuel tanks have been moved in front of the rear axles. Because most current vehicles are front-wheel drive, that's not as big a challenge because there is no drive shaft or differential to avoid.

But in Ford's latest rear-wheel-drive car, the Thunderbird roadster, which rides on a chassis shared by Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type, the engineers located the fuel tank in front of the rear axle despite the design challenges.

The Mustang now has a "bathtub" shield that lies under the tank to thwart punctures.

Ford has published a 15-page booklet setting out its views on the Crown Victoria. Ford says that engineers never encountered in 51 crash tests the kind of puncture problems that caused the first two police deaths in Arizona.

"Not once during those tests did the fuel tank sustain a puncture from the parking cable bolt, the shock bracket or the tab on the bottom of the sway bar bracket," the booklet says.

McGroder counters that the test engineers should have been able to anticipate that, in rear impacts greater than 50 mph, the protrusions could cause punctures.

Ford said fires after high-speed, rear-impact crashes are almost impossible to design out of vehicles.

"No vehicle maker could reasonably anticipate or prevent the unique conditions surrounding these accidents, nor has any vehicle ever been designed to reliably withstand these kinds of impacts," Ford's booklet says.

Arizona in forefront

Arizona has been in the forefront of the Crown Victoria controversy, with seven law enforcement and civilian deaths in the state.

The three law enforcement victims were DPS Officer Cruz in December 1998, DPS Officer Floyd "Skip" Fink in February 2000 and Chandler Officer Nielsen on June 12.

Schechterle, who suffered severe burns in his March 2001 patrol-car fire, has become a poignant living symbol of the tragic incidents.

Ford representatives met with Arizona DPS officials a month before Schechterle's crash, in February 2001. In Ford's presentation, the automaker maintained that post-rear-impact, fuel-fed fires were rare and that the patrol cars have a good safety record.

In October 2001, Ford issued a Technical Service Bulletin to its dealers and thousands of police agencies with procedures to modify possible puncture sources. The bulletin specified changing a bolt in the emergency-brake cable bracket to a smooth-headed rivet and filing down part of the support structure for the rear stabilizer bar.

But that bulletin was never made public.

Tatchio said it applied only to police vehicles and was specifically aimed to prevent punctures at 80 mph or higher.

In March 2002, state Attorney General Janet Napolitano wrote a scathing letter to Ford, complaining that Ford's presentation a year earlier had been misleading and manipulative, and called on Ford to recall the patrol cars to make safety modifications.

"The risk, however slight by Ford's analysis, that another one of our police officers could be seriously burned or burned to death in a CVPI (patrol car) after a rear-end collision is unacceptable," Napolitano wrote.

Chandler police had performed the bolt and stabilizer modifications to their patrol cars, including Nielsen's, before his fatal crash, which prompted critics to note that the modifications were never crash-tested and apparently were not effective.

Ford said the impact to the patrolman's car came from the side behind the rear wheel and was not a rear-impact crash. Elwell counters that if the tank was in front of or above the rear axle, the slicing impact would have missed it.

Orders for cars canceled

Since Nielsen's death, a number of police departments have canceled or postponed Crown Victoria orders. Gov. Jane Hull told the DPS not to order any more of the Fords until the problem is addressed.

In late June, Napolitano traveled to Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., where she reached an agreement with Ford officials for a task force to study fuel-tank bladders and shielding to help prevent gasoline spills after rear-end collisions. The report is due by mid-September.

Ditlow was scornful of Ford's concession.

"The state of art already exists to prevent fire deaths in all Crown Victorias," he said. "Police and consumers need a recall, not a blue ribbon panel to study what is already known while more people burn to death in these vehicles."

On July 2, Corpus Christi attorney David Perry filed a class-action suit on behalf of a group of Texas officials, seeking an injunction to force Ford to modify the police cruisers' fuel tanks. A hearing has been scheduled for July 22.

Perry, who has represented fire victims and works as co-counsel with McGroder, also dismissed the task force plan.

"Ford has been studying the problem for 30 years, and they'll study it to death," he said. "It's a tragedy that Ford will not step up to the plate and do something meaningful."

Phoenix seeks outside help

In late June, Phoenix police officials traveled to Bend, Ore., to order bladder insert systems for 735 Crown Victoria patrol cars from Fuel Safe, a company that specializes in "fuel cell" safety systems for racing.

The total cost for the bladders, which also involves removing the fuel tanks and shipping them to Bend, will be about $1.5 million.

Company Sales Manager Ty Rupert said the bladders, made of ballistic nylon and coated with urethane, are designed to resist puncture damage.

A foam material that holds the fuel in case of a puncture is added as an extra precaution.

"The bladder we're using for the Crown Victoria is the most durable we make for a production vehicle," Rupert said, noting that other police agencies have contacted Fail Safe.

He disputed claims by Ford that the company's bladders are only in the prototype stage or that they're not ready for mass production.

He said the Crown Victoria installation would follow routine procedure for the company, which has been making safety bladders since 1972.

He pointed out that Ford used his company's bladders in one of its production vehicles, the high-performance Mustang Cobra R, for three years, the last in 2000. Ford gave the fuel bladder in the Cobra's final year a 10-year warranty.

Ford disputes the need for bladders or shields in the Crown Victoria, Tatchio said, even though the company has agreed to study the issue.

"We have a real sense of urgency about this, and we want to work as we are with the state of Arizona and the attorney general," she said. "We want to take this car, which is already safe, and move the state of the art to see what we can do to further improve it."

McGroder, who said he had been friends with DPS Officer Skip Fink before Fink was killed, decried Ford's reluctance to admit there is a problem with the Crown Victoria, much less address the problem.

"So now the question is: Can they bring all their technology and acumen to bear on a real-world problem?" the attorney asked. "The problem is that in the real world, we have policemen burning to death."

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