Area police not worried about patrol car safety

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

In the past decade, at least 10 law enforcement officers in Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors have died and at least seven policemen have been seriously injured in rear-collision crashes in which the gas tank caught fire.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been investigating the vehicles since November. They account for 500,000 police cruisers on the road in the United States today and for most of the vehicles in the fleets of the Cape Girardeau and Jackson police departments and the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department.

Last month, after the third policeman in four years was killed in the same type of collision, the Phoenix Police Department canceled an order for 200 Crown Victoria cruisers, and the Arizona governor ordered the state's highway patrol to place no new orders with Ford until questions about the vehicle's safety were answered. Arizona's attorney general has demanded Ford participate in a recall and charges the company never tested the police cruiser in crashes over 50 mph.

Ford maintains that the fuel system is safe and so far has refused demands for a recall. However, last October the company issued a service bulletin advising replacement of a metal tab and a bolt thought to have caused the punctures that led to some of the fires. Ford did not offer to pay for the repairs.

Most of the vehicles used by Cape Girardeau and Jackson police and by Cape Girardeau County sheriff's deputies are Crown Victorias purchased through the state. Some officials say they are not overly concerned about the potential problems because they involve rear-end crashes at relatively high speeds. Because Cape Girardeau and Jackson officers and sheriff's deputies spend little time on I-55, they reason, the opportunities for those kinds of crashes to occur are rare.

All three agencies are aware of the questions that have been raised about Crown Victorias. Cape Girardeau police chief Steve Strong said he has been monitoring the complaints about the vehicles for years.

"I didn't have a great deal of concern based on the other reports I had read," he said, "and we have not encountered a problem."

No concerns locally

His officers haven't brought up any concerns, he said.

Forty-seven of the department's fleet of 54 patrol and detective cars are Crown Victorias.

Jackson has 10 Crown Victorias in its fleet of police vehicles.

"Over the years there have been some safety issues with them, but we've never had any recalls," said Jackson police Lt. Robert Bonney.

He said no one on the force has questioned its use of Crown Victorias.

Sheriff's deputies are driving 12 Crown Victorias bought through the state. The department knows about the vehicle's involvement in fatalities resulting from rear-end crashes at high speeds, Lt. Vince Diebold said, but there isn't much concern about being involved in one of those.

"We're not out on the interstates much," Diebold said.

Ford maintains that most of the fires have occurred in crashes of 70 mph or more.

On May 30, a Columbia County, Florida, sheriff's deputy died of burns he sustained after he swerved to avoid three teen-agers walking in his lane on a dark road. His Crown Victoria spun and crashed into a pine tree.

One June 12, Chandler, Ariz., police officer Robert Nielsen, 25, was killed in his Crown Victoria after his cruiser was struck by an another vehicle on the driver's side, spun counterclockwise and hit a traffic pole in the rear passenger area, creating a fire.

Police vehicles generally are more powerful than the standard model and have different suspensions, different interior lights and other alterations.

"It's a working car for an officer," Strong said.

The Cape Girardeau police buy their cars used from the Missouri State Highway Patrol as a cost-saving measure. The cars usually have about 50,000 miles on them, have been road tested and can be bought for from $13,000 to $15,000 -- about half the cost of a new vehicle.

Police departments have very limited choices in picking vehicles. Strong said Ford is basically the only company offering a full-size automobile.

Chevrolet has a police package available in its smaller Impala, and Chrysler is expected to offer a police vehicle soon.

The department has tried using vehicles bought off car lots, but they didn't work out well, Strong said.

Strong has no concerns about using Crown Victorias unless Ford or the NHTSA say there's a problem.

"It hasn't been proven," he said.

The police cruisers have virtually the same fuel systems as Ford's Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis. The fuel tanks are positioned behind the rear axle, which critics say is less safe than in front of or above the axle.

According to the NHTSA's Fatal Analysis Crash System, three of the vehicles have been involved in fatal collisions in Missouri since 1996. One of those in Pemiscot County involved a fire and explosion.

Diebold said Cape Girardeau County's Crown Victorias have good overall safety ratings.

"They do throw hubcaps like crazy," he said.

The department expects to buy two more vehicles next year, Diebold said.

"No doubt they'll be Crown Vics."

Strong gave perhaps the strongest endorsement of the vehicle, buying one of the police cruisers for his personal use even though he was aware of the controversy about them.

"I drive one," he said.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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