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Safety Groups Blast Ford Plan

Jun 25, 2002 | AP

An agreement between Ford Motor Co. and Arizona's attorney general to investigate the safety of Ford Crown Victoria police cars is "woefully inadequate" and "highly diversionary," safety groups said Tuesday, demanding the cars be recalled.

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.

"How can Ford Motor Co. justify not recalling a vehicle involved in at least 10 fatal fire crashes of police officers since 1992 and at least 13 more civilian deaths listed in FARS (a federal accident database) as caused by fire between 1994 and 2000," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in a letter to Ford chairman and chief executive Bill Ford. Ditlow asked Ford to recall all Crown Victorias — not just police versions.

Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said in response to the letter that police vehicles are used in unique ways in dangerous situations.

"We stress there is absolutely no safety issue with the Crown Victoria or other vehicles on the platform," she said.

Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano said she did not request Ford recall the vehicles during her meeting Tuesday with Ford engineers and officials at the automaker's Dearborn headquarters.

The trip was triggered by the June 12 death of Chandler, Ariz., police Officer Robert Nielsen. In the past three years, two other Arizona officers died and another was seriously injured in Crown Victoria fires.

This is the second time 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.

But safety groups say Napolitano should have demanded a recall and not settled for the creation of two investigatory panels. One will be a technical task force; the other will work on accident prevention.

"This is woefully inadequate," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety. "It's not a matter of whether there will be a recall, but when."

Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( news - web sites) who now leads the group Public Citizen, called the establishment of the panels "highly diversionary" and also demanded the cars be recalled.

Napolitano said, however, she was satisfied with the results of the meeting.

"This sets us on a concrete path to make these cars safer," she said at a joint news conference at Ford headquarters.

Ford officials said the automaker's internal tests indicate the fiery crashes are not the result of problems with the design of the car, but Ford is not opposed to improving it to help ensure the safety of police officers and passengers.

There are at least 400,000 Crown Victoria Police Interceptors on the road, Ford officials said. About 56,500 were sold in the past year.

"We're committed to make a safe car safer," said Sue Cischke, Ford vice president of environment and safety engineering.

The technical task force will look at issues including testing scenarios, fuel tank bladders and shields, Napolitano said. It will be comprised of Ford engineers and experts from the aircraft and race car design industries and the military.

The panel is expected to complete its testing within 30 to 90 days, Napolitano said.

The leader of the technical task force, a Ford official, also will head the second panel to look into accident prevention.

Some aspects it will examine include changes in police procedures and issues like emergency lighting or the way police load the trunk that may contribute to fuel tank punctures after a crash.

Four other members of this panel will be designated by Ford, and four will be chosen by Napolitano's office.

Countering Ford's assertion that the Crown Victoria is safe, a Corpus Christi, Texas, lawyer who has litigated five cases against Ford related to the police cars says he has information that reveals the vehicles repeatedly failed rear end crash tests at 50 mph prior to the 1998 model year.

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

Cischke said cars used in those tests are "development" vehicles and not production versions sold to the public.

She said there was no fuel leakage in a Crown Victoria during a crash test at 70 mph or in a number of accidents in Ohio.

An investigator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has traveled to Phoenix at the request of Gov. Jane Hull to look into the fires.

A federal investigation was launched in November 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 platform.

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