- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

Ford Motor Co.'s response to a suspected design defect that has been blamed for the fiery deaths of a dozen law-enforcement officers across the country has met with both trust and distrust from local police associations.
Nationwide, 13 law-enforcement officers have died in Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors since 1983 after rear-end collisions punctured the vehicles' gas tank, causing them to catch fire.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it began its investigation in November 2001 when the death toll stood at nine. Since then, police agencies in Arizona, Florida, New York and Texas reported similar deaths.
None of the incidents occurred in Maryland, Virginia or the District.
The Crown Victoria dominates the police market in the United States. Ford estimates it has sold more than 500,000 of the vehicles to police departments across the nation in the last 20 years 350,000 of which are still in use.
Ford said in a statement that the crashes involved impacts of up to 70 mph.
"Our sympathy goes out to the officers' families, but we do not believe any other comparable vehicles' fuel tanks could have survived the severity of these impacts," the statement said.
Ford said its own tests found the Crown Victoria's fuel tank did not leak at 50 mph.
Lt. Nick Paros, president of the Maryland Troopers Association, doesn't agree with Ford's position.
"This is a car designed for police work," Lt. Paros said. "It's not designed for parades. Why [is Ford] selling something as a police interceptor and not standing behind it?"
Ford said it commissioned a technical task force in June to study the fuel tank problem. In September, Ford offered to retrofit police cars with a plastic shield mounted around the fuel tank that would protect it in the event of a collision.
The Maryland State Police fleet includes 1,400 Crown Victorias, of which 650 have been retrofitted, state police said.
Lt. Paros said Maryland troopers are responsible for scheduling appointments to have their vehicles retrofitted at Ford dealerships, but he said demand in some cases has exceeded supply.
"I've been waiting three months for mine," he said. "While we're waiting, what's happening?"
The father of 1-year-old twins, Lt. Paros said he would not drive the car with his children aboard, as he is legally entitled to do, because of his concern about the vehicle's safety.
"I personally don't feel safe," he said. "I refuse to drive the car off duty."
He said too many law-enforcement officers died before Ford offered to refit the police cars, and that makes him distrust the manufacturer's solutions.
Virginia State Police have a different attitude.
Lt. Col. Steve Flaherty said his fleet consists of roughly 1,400 Crown Victorias and that his department continues to have a "good working relationship" with Ford. He could not provide an estimate on the status of the refit, but said all state police cars should have it completed by spring.
Virginia, like Maryland, is having its refits done at local Ford dealerships.
"We were trying to make sure the fix we were trying to impose was the proper one," Lt. Col. Flaherty said. "I think the manufacturer has identified that and provided the part that's going to make our vehicles safe."
D.C. police have 782 Crown Victorias in their fleet, and on Thursday received parts to begin the retrofit. D.C. police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile said the department's Ford-certified mechanics would conduct the refits themselves. He said the department was awaiting the arrival of a Ford representative who will instruct police mechanics on how to install the fuel tank shield.
Earlier this year, New York State Police Superintendent James McMahon ordered his fleet of Crown Victorias out of service until they were retrofitted with fuel tank shields. Mr. McMahon issued the order after Trooper Robert Ambrose died Dec. 19 in Yonkers when his cruiser was rear-ended.
The National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York Wednesday asking the court to compel Ford to disclose alternate designs to modify the vehicles and to grant police agencies a voice in the modification
NAPO represents 220,000 police officers and 4,000 unions nationwide, although none are in Maryland, Virginia or the District.
The suit claimed Ford was aware of the danger and asked the court to compel it to reveal alternative design plans, such as "bladders," or sacks that protect fuel from igniting, and allow police agencies to review the plans to determine which solutions are best for their particular needs.
"What we're asking the court to do is to say, 'Ford Motor Co., you're aware of the problem. Share with police officers what you've come up with already and let police departments choose remedies that will best preserve the lives of officers,'" said Bill Johnson, executive director of NAPO.
The lawsuit noted Ford's proposed safety enhancements, but called them "inefficient" and "inadequate." It also claimed that the enhancements could actually "increase the risk of fire [and-or] explosion." Questions remain, for instance, over whether the bolts used to install the shields may themselves puncture the fuel tanks in a severe impact.
Mr. Johnson said the cars pose different risks for dissimilar police agencies. He said state troopers would be more vulnerable to collisions than city patrol officers because of the high speeds on the expressways they patrol.
A statement issued by Ford said the suit was "without merit." Ford said the Crown Victoria has earned the government's 5-star crash rating, the highest vehicle crashworthiness rating available.
The NHTSA in October closed an 11-month investigation of the Crown Victorias, finding the vehicle meets federal motor vehicle safety standards for fuel tank integrity at crash speeds up to 30 mph.

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