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Ford Panels to Probe Cop Car Safety

Jun 25, 2002 | AP

Ford Motor Co. is creating two panels to look into the safety of Ford Crown Victoria police cars as a result of discussions with state officials following an accident that killed a policeman in Arizona earlier this month.

"This sets us on a concrete path to make these cars safer," Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano said Tuesday after meeting with Ford executives at the automaker's headquarters here.

She arranged the trip to Dearborn after the June 12 death of Chandler, Ariz., policeman Robert Nielsen, the third Arizona police officer in three years killed in fires resulting from accidents in Crown Victoria cruisers.

The location of the Crown Victoria's gas tank between the rear bumper and axle has been blamed for car fires that have killed at least 11 officers nationwide in the last 20 years.

Sue Cischke, Ford vice president of environment and safety engineering, said the Crown Victoria is not at fault, but the company is not opposed to improving it.

"We're committed to make a safe car safer," Cischke said at the joint news conference.

Napolitano said a technical task force will look at "a host of issues," including testing scenarios, fuel tank bladders and shields. The task force will be comprised of Ford engineers and outside experts from the aerospace industry and competitive racing.

The chair of the technical task force will also head a second panel that will look into possible changes in police procedures and alterations to the vehicle, like lighting or the way police load the trunk.

"I thought we solved this problem with the Pinto," said Joan Claybrook, director of Public Citizen in Washington.

"Ford just ought to recall the cars," she said.

But Napolitano said there was no request made at the meeting for Ford to recall the vehicles.

Ford officials said the deaths are tragic, but the automaker's internal tests indicate the fiery crashes are not the result of problems with the design of the car.

"It's not clear that all of these accidents were even rear-end collisions," Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said. "There doesn't appear to be a common thread to any of them."

David Perry, a Corpus Christi, Texas, lawyer who has litigated five cases against Ford related to the police cars, said the cars should be recalled. Perry says information he uncovered through the discovery process revealed the vehicles repeatedly failed a series of rear end crash tests at 50 miles an hour prior to the 1998 model year by Ford.

"They never could get one to pass. One was certified based on engineering determination," Perry said.

An investigator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( news - web sites) has traveled to Phoenix at the request of Gov. Jane Hull to look into the fires.

A federal investigation was launched Nov. 27, 2001, and is ongoing NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said.

Included in the investigation along with the Ford Crown Victoria are the Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car, both of which are built on the same basic structure or platform.

This is the second time in recent years that Arizona has been out front in raising automotive safety concerns. The state was among the first to identify problems with Firestone tires that ultimately led to a massive recall in August 2000.

Meanwhile, Mesa, Ariz., officials are trying to replace all the city's gasoline-burning Crown Victorias with ones that run exclusively on compressed natural gas, said Greg Fowler, an assistant police chief.

That would take between two and three years at an estimated cost of about $3 million, he said.

Last week, the Phoenix City Council safety subcommittee voted to freeze the purchase of up to 200 police cars from Ford unless the automaker agrees to install sponge-like bladder gas tanks to reduce the risk of explosion in a crash.

The body also voted to retrofit most of the Phoenix Police Department's 735 Crown Victoria police cruisers with the bladder tanks.

Ford has said the bladders have not been crash tested in production vehicles, but the company is willing to look at the technology.

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