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Old 12-08-2003, 07:49   #1 (permalink)
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U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

FREE PRESS INVESTIGATION:Fatalities from rear-crash fires are higher than government toll

December 8, 2003

BY JENNIFER DIXON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

First of two parts

Sheriff's Deputy Matthew Dominick barely had time to react last October when he saw a car hurtling toward his parked Crown Victoria on a roadside in Boone County, Iowa. He jumped to another lane, just as the Chevy Malibu slammed into the rear of his 2003 Crown Vic, ripping open its 19-gallon steel gas tank and igniting a fuel-fed fire that engulfed the patrol car in seconds. Ammunition and bags of confiscated fireworks began firing in the trunk, forcing emergency workersto take cover in a ditch.

No one was hurt. But afterward, Sheriff Ron Fehr found himself asking a question that has dogged Ford Motor Co. for years: Does the most popular police car in America have a fatal flaw?

A Free Press investigation found that more people have died in fiery rear-impact crashes in the Crown Victoria and two similar sedans than federal regulators revealed when they cleared the vehicles and their rear-mounted gas tanks of any manufacturing defects last year.

The regulators, focusing mainly on police cases, counted 16 fatalities in rear-impact fires in cars built between 1992 and 2001. But the Free Press documented 30 deaths during that span and a total of 69 in the last two decades, including at least 18 officers.

Ford insists the Crown Vic is safe and meets all federal standards, a view shared by regulators. Ford also says the car has a comparable record to other big sedans in fatal fires resulting from all types of crashes.

But the story of the Crown Vic Police Interceptor is about more than statistics.

It is a story of how police agencies and their mechanics sought for three years to convince Ford to end the roadside infernos, while the toll of victims continued to grow. It is also an inside look at an automaker's struggle to persuade police that the cars were not inherently flawed -- and that no vehicle could withstand the kinds of crashes that were killing cops.

Throughout 2000 and 2001, as Ford was mired in a corporate crisis brought on by fatal rollover accidents involving its popular Explorer, the world's No. 2 automaker kept assuring police and their mechanics that they had nothing to fear with the Crown Vic. Ford met with police and political officials, offering up bar charts and brochures to allay their concerns.

But as the deaths increased, and as autopsy reports showed that many of the officers would have survived if not for the fires, Ford reversed course.

The company agreed to begin outfitting the police cars with safety shields to protect the gas tanks. Mechanics at some police departments had begun doing the same thing on their own a year before.

When the new shields failed to quell lingering fears, the company took an extraordinary next step. It decided to offer fire suppression systems in the 2005 model of its police interceptors, the kinds of systems typically found in armored personnel carriers. The automaker says it was simply making a safe car safer.

Ford officials emphasize that no design can eliminate all risk in high-impact crashes. The company also says fatality figures are meaningless in isolation.

"I think the focus of saying, 'Here's a list of people who have died in a Crown Vic' takes away the view of, 'Are these frequent accidents? Are these rare accidents?' " said Sue Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering. "These are very rare accidents occurring under very high-speed, high-energy impacts. To use a word like death toll makes it sound like it's an epidemic, and I just think that's the wrong way of looking at it."

The reality is that rear-end crashes are rare. And police tend to be at greater risk than civilians of being in rear-impact crashes because they're often in harm's way while stopped at crash scenes and on roadsides.

Even so, some police and consumer advocates remain critical of Ford's response.

"Some people are being killed who didn't need to be," said Patricia Werhane, a professor of business ethics at the University of Virginia and DePaul University in Chicago, who has studied the Ford Pinto. The small car came under scrutiny in the 1970s for rear-end fires that killed at least 26 people.

Werhane said the Crown Vic, with its gas tank behind the rear axle, should have been reengineered by now. It is built on a platform, or basic mechanical structure, launched in 1979.

Industry experts said most passenger cars built today have gas tanks forward of the rear suspension because it's considered a more protected location.

In the Iowa deputy's case, Dominick's car had been outfitted with Ford's new safety shields. But the Crown Vic still burst into flames, leaving him and his boss with doubts about whether the gas tank can ever be fixed. "It makes you wonder," the sheriff said. "It didn't help."

Lt. Greg Abbott of the Cobb County Police Department in suburban Atlanta, who narrowly escaped death in a Crown Vic hit from behind in 2002, is convinced something is wrong:

"In a rear-impact accident, the Crown Vic is just a firebomb waiting to happen."
Police deaths in the car mount

It was 1998 when Lt. James Wells Jr. of the Florida Highway Patrol first suspected something was wrong.

Two Florida highway patrol officers had been involved in similar rear-end crashes with fire.

In 1997, Trooper Robert Smith was killed when a driver hit his Crown Vic from behind, setting his car ablaze. A year later, Trooper Marisa Sanders was severely injured when her Chevrolet Caprice patrol car was hit, leaking gas that caught fire as she stood outside the vehicle.

Two late-night accidents. Two drunken drivers. Two different police cars.

Too many coincidences for Wells.

Wells, who runs the patrol's equipment, compliance and testing office, began to investigate.

He looked at all known deaths by fire in rear-ended police cars and determined that the Crown Vic and the Caprice were catching fire at about the same rate.

But General Motors Corp.had stopped making the Caprice in 1996, leaving the market for police cars largely to Ford. So Wells decided to take a harder look at the Crown Vic and its gas tank, sandwiched between the rear axle and the forward trunk wall.

After investigating for more than seven months, Wells reported his findings to Col. Charles Hall, director of the Florida Highway Patrol, on July 26, 1999.

That same Monday, as Hall met with his staff to discuss Wells' report, another Florida cop died.

Madison County Sheriff's Deputy Steven Agner was driving less than 5 miles an hour as part of a construction crew in north Florida when a Florida State University student, talking on her cell phone, came cruising along I-10. At about 70 m.p.h., her Chevrolet pickup plowed into Agner's 1999 Crown Vic patrol car. The Crown Vic caught fire immediately. Agner was trapped inside with a broken collarbone. The autopsy showed he burned to death.

The next day, Wells inspected the gas tank of Agner's car and found that it had been cut by the arm that holds the shock absorber on the right side of the rear axle. He added the details to his report.

A week later, on Aug. 3, the Highway Patrol shipped Wells' report to Ford with a recommendation: Move the Crown Victoria's fuel tank from behind the rear axle to an area in front of it. If the tank couldn't be moved, Wells wrote, Ford should consider other options -- reinforcing the tank with shields to protect it from suspension components, lining the inside of the gas tank with a bladder to prevent leaks or installing a fire suppression system.

In a letter accompanying the report, Hall told Ford the Crown Victoria "does not adequately protect our officers in one of their principal job environments."

Wells waited nine months for his first meeting with Ford to talk about his report. In the meantime, the fires and deaths continued, with police still the most visible victims.

On Feb. 18, 2000, Officer Skip Fink pulled over a motorist for a traffic violation on U.S. 60 in Tempe, Ariz. It was 5:40 a.m., not yet daylight. Before Fink could get out of his car, a Honda Prelude slammed into his 1999Crown Victoria. Gas gushed out of the punctured tank, and flames quickly consumed the car. Several motorists tried to help Fink. They heard the 264-pound man moaning and trying to speak as he tried to escape. Finally, rescuers pulled him from the wreckage. He was alive when paramedics arrived but showed no signs of life when he arrived at the Maricopa County Medical Center. An autopsy showed he died of burns and smoke inhalation. He had no other traumatic injuries.

There would have been nothing suspicious about Fink's death -- except that 14 months earlier, the same thing had happened to state Police Officer Juan Cruz.

Parked on the inside westbound lane of I-10 outside Tucson, Cruz was finishing an accident report in his 1996 Crown Victoria when it was rear-ended by a woman who had been drinking while celebrating her 21st birthday. The patrol car burst into flames.Cruz died fromburns and smoke inhalation.

Two rear-ended Crown Victorias. Two fireballs. Two dead state troopers.

Too many coincidences for Mike Lopker, manager of the City of Phoenix's police fleet.

Lopker worried: Was something wrong with the Crown Vic? Would an officer on the Phoenix force die next?

From a mechanics' yard in south Phoenix, Lopker's assistants called Ford. Lopker said Ford assured them the car was safe.

He recalled a Ford official as saying, "We don't have anything to share. We don't know anything about this. You're the only one experiencing this."

Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman, said the company tried to be responsive to all of its police customers.

"Safety at Ford has never taken a backseat to other issues," she said.

Lopker, a mechanic, assumed he was a lone voice in Arizona, unaware that Wells, the Florida trooper, had warned Ford about the vehicle six months earlier.

Nonetheless, he persisted in seeking answers. Lopker had mechanics put four Crown Vics up on lifts to look for any sharp edges or metal tabs that could puncture the gas tank. They didn't find anything remarkable.

"We're in the maintenance business," Lopker said. "We don't do crash investigations. We didn't understand what happens in a crash."

Lopker's office called its Ford representative in the Phoenix area, asking whether he knew anything about the fires or car.

"We were unsuccessful getting any information from Ford," Lopker said.

In the meantime, Wells, who wrote the Florida Highway Patrol report, met with Ford officials in Dearborn on May 4, 2000. They put cars on lifts, examined the vehicles and talked about Wells' concerns. He said Ford assured him themodel was safe.

In Arizona, Lopker and officials at the state Department of Public Safety remained worried.

The department called Ford in January 2001. The next month, Ford dispatched a handful of representatives to Phoenix to meet with department officials.

The Ford representatives pulled out charts and accident statistics and told the state troopers that the Crown Victoria was as safe as it could be and exceeded federal standards.

Just before midnight on March 26, 2001, Phoenix Police Officer Jason Schechterle was called to investigate a report of a dead body. Firefighters also were dispatched. On his way to the scene, at an intersection in Phoenix, a taxi with a passenger just out of jail rammed intoSchechterle's 1996 Crown Vic. A fire engulfed the vehicle. Firefighters, already at the scene, put it out. With black smoke and flames swirling around the car, Officer Kevin Chadwick saw what he thought was a silhouette in the front seat. Schechterle was trapped in the seat belt, unconscious. Chadwick cut the belt and freed Schechterle. The fire had burned away Schechterle's ears and most of his nose. It had mangled his hands. He remained in a coma for more than two months and, when he woke, discovered he was blind.
Concern continues to rise

Lopker's worst fears were now realized.

But Ford still was telling him the Crown Vic was the "safest car you can buy," he said, and the automaker explained that it could not design a car to survive every crash or protect against all conditions.

The Crown Vic has rear-wheel drive and what is known as a live rear axle, features cops value. When the wheels move up and down, the whole axle moves up and down. The drive shaft, which runs the length of the car from the engine to the rear axle, also must be able to move with the axle. That kind of movement requires room in the car's underbody, leaving little space for a gas tank in front of the rear axle. Ford said the only option was to place the tank behind the rear axle.

Still not satisfiedwith what he was hearing from Ford, Lopker turned to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, which monitors auto safety. He wanted to know whether the Crown Vic was susceptible to rear-impact fires.

What troubled him was that he never had seen a problem on such a wide scale when hisofficers drove the Chevrolet Caprice, which also had a rear-mounted gas tank. But unlike the Crown Vic's steel tank, the Caprice's tank was plastic and mounted horizontally below the trunk floor. The Crown Vic's tank is mounted vertically, with greater exposure to suspension parts, NHTSA records show.

Lopker asked his staff to call NHTSA in Washington, D.C. At first, they called once a day. Then once a week. Then every two weeks. Then once a month. No answer.

"They didn't want to talk to us -- ever," Lopker said.

Responding in a recent interview, NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said: "I reject that we were nonresponsive. The agency was very responsive to the concerns that were raised by a number of law enforcement agencies."

Dennis Garrett, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, also was pressing NHTSA for answers.

"There is an unusually high occurrence of fires associated with rear-end collisions of Crown Victoria vehicles," Garrett said in a letter to NHTSA dated April 3, 2001. "This is a trend which should be looked at to see if it is reflected at the national level. The design specifications and construction of the Crown Victoria should be examined by the experts at your disposal to determine if a design flaw exists or authoritatively state that the Crown Victoria, which has become the last full-sized police package sedan, is a safe vehicle for our nation's law enforcement officers."

NHTSA responded by sending a representative to Phoenix to meet with Garrett and other department officials. The representative told them the car was built to federal standards.

But the pressure on NHTSA intensified. On June 5, 2001, a defect investigator from NHTSA and a division chief recommended that the agency investigate how often the Crown Vic was catching fire.

In late June, two Ford executives -- Brian Geraghty, director of design analysis, and Bill Koeppel, manager of production vehicle safety and compliance -- met with NHTSA officials to discuss the Crown Vic.

During the two-hour meeting, Geraghty and Koeppel passed out the same booklet that Ford had been giving to worried police agencies, according to Geraghty's testimony in a lawsuit filed in the 1997 death of Florida Trooper Robert Smith.

Geraghty testified in a deposition that he and Koeppel met July 3 with Ford's Critical Concerns Review Group, which reviews safety issues, and explained to the group "that there wasn't a defect investigation being opened. We were not told of one being opened."

Someone was keeping minutes and made this notation about the potential investigation: "got an agreement NHTSA will not open."

Geraghty, in an interview with the Free Press, described those minutes as inaccurate and said the note-taker was the "kind of a person in the corner who writes things down."

"There was not an agreement," he said. "There never was an agreement."
Ford was mired in rollover battle

In any event, the last thing Ford needed at the time was another public relations nightmare, another federal investigation.

The company already was reeling from a year of crises.

The automaker was roiled by a bitter fight with Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. over who was to blame for fatal accidents caused when Firestone tires failed and Ford Explorers rolled over.

Ford also was bleeding money. Sales were slipping. Its U.S. market share was eroding.

Doug Lampe, a Ford lawyer, said the tumult did not overshadow Ford's response to the Crown Vic fires.

"The company has the staff, the resources, to handle multiple issues at one time," Lampe said. "That is not a challenge we are unable to meet."

The rollover controversy erupted in 2000, when Bridgestone/Firestone recalled 14.4 million tires, most of them on the Explorer, under pressure from Ford. Congressional hearings soon followed.

The wrangling between the companies flared up again on May 21, 2001, when Firestone said it was ending its 95-year relationship with Ford, creating a messy public divorce.

The next day, Ford announced it would replace 13 million more Firestone tires not covered by the original recall.

Ford blamed Firestone, saying it had built defective tires for the Explorer. Bridgestone/Firestone blamed Ford, saying the design of the Explorer caused it to roll over when a tire failed. By then, nearly 150 people had died in crashes blamed on the tires, most of which were on Explorers.

NHTSA cleared the Explorer in October 2001, saying its design did not contribute to rollovers that occurred after tire tread separations.

But the crisis took its toll, and there was unrest in the executive ranks.

The first hint of changes to come occurred when Bill Ford, company chairman, began taking more control of the business in July 2001. The board created the Office of Chairman and Chief Executive. Under the unorthodox arrangement, Ford and Chief Executive Jacques Nasser met every few weeks to review company operations.

And it appeared Nasser and many top aides might be on the way out.

That August, as the company's red ink grew, Ford announced that it was cutting 4,000 to 5,000 white-collar jobs.

On Oct. 30, Nasser was ousted, and Bill Ford stepped in as chief executive. By year's end, Ford would suffer staggering losses -- $5.45 billion.

On Jan. 11, 2002, Ford announced a sweeping restructuring -- it was cutting 21,500 jobs in North America, a total of 35,000 worldwide. It was closing five plants and killing off four poor-selling vehicles.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, the problem of fires in police cars was a quiet, relatively small crisis. But it was catching up with Ford.
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Old 12-08-2003, 07:51   #2 (permalink)
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

Reported deaths don't add up

Analysis finds more fatal, fiery wrecks

December 8, 2003

BY JENNIFER DIXON AND MEGAN CHRISTENSEN
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS

When federal regulators cleared the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car of any safety defects last fall, they blamed fiery rear-impact crashes for just 16 deaths in sedans built between 1992 and 2001.

But the Free Press has found that about 30 people died in fiery rear-end crashes in the vehicles during that time -- and at least 69 have perished since Ford Motor Co. launched the Panther platform in 1979. The Crown Vic, Grand Marquis and Town Car share that platform, or basic mechanical underpinnings.

Ford acknowledges 18 police fatalities in fires caused by rear-impact crashes involving its Crown Victoria police cruiser -- a specially equipped version of the sedan -- but has declined to discuss the number of civilian casualities.

The Dearborn automaker says raw fatality numbers are not an accurate measure of the cars' records and that, overall, they have an impressive safety history. Several factors, Ford says, must be considered when assessing the cars' records, including the number of miles driven each year or hours on the road.

"The rate of somebody being injured or killed in a Crown Vic is no more risky or is not greater than other vehicles," said Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president of environmental and safety engineering.

A string of rear-impact, fuel-fed fires in the Crown Vic prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate the car in late 2001. The agency included the Grand Marquis and the Town Car in the probe because they share the Panther platform.

Ford said police are exposed to greater risk than civilians. For instance, Ford said, police cars are driven 10 times more hours a day and four times more miles per year than civilian vehicles; police use their cars more often during high-risk, nighttime hours, and police stop along highways at least a thousand times more per year than nonpolice vehicles.

Even under those conditions, Ford said, the rate of rear-impact fires in the Crown Vic Police Interceptor is comparable with other makes and models. The company says the Crown Vic police cruiser has an incident rate of one fire out of 1,000 rear-end crashes, while the Ford Taurus has a rate of 1.1 out of 1,000. The Taurus also is used in police work, but its fuel tank is under the passenger compartment. The Crown Vic's tank sits behind the rear axle -- making it vulnerable, critics say, to being punctured in rear-end crashes.

A Free Press computer-assisted analysis of fatalities that had been reported to the federal government between 1994 and 2002 found that Panther vehicles caught fire twice as often as other vehicles in rear-end crashes. About five out of every 1,000 Panther platform cars caught fire in fatal rear-end crashes. That compares with a rate of two in every 1,000 among all vehicles. In any event, such crashes are rare. The Panther cases accounted for just six of every 100,000 vehicles involved in all types of fatal accidents.

Pat McGroder, a Phoenix lawyer who has sued Ford in several deaths, said that for Ford to suggest that the death of "one police officer in a Crown Vic is statistically insignificant is an insult to the victims, the families of the victims and law enforcement officers all across this country."

For its investigation, NHTSA looked at the number of fires in fatal rear crashes in the Ford vehicles and the Chevrolet Caprice, built by General Motors Corp. The Caprice also was used as a police vehicle. GM discontinued it in 1996.

NHTSA said the Ford cars had a fire in 8 percent of fatal rear-end crashes; the Caprice had a rate of 6.3 percent.

NHTSA relied on a faulty database of deadly crashes, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, while investigating the Ford cars. The agency's spokesman, Rae Tyson, acknowledgedthe records were flawed.

NHTSA investigators, he said, "didn't really depend on FARS for the data because there's so many shortcomings with it. They depended largely on information they gathered independently or were able to gather from Ford."

Tyson said the agency always asks the manufacturer for information.

"We conducted a very thorough investigation and are comfortable and confident in our conclusions," Tyson said.

But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said NHTSA never should rely on a carmaker when assessing vehicle safety.

"The manufacturer has a vested interest in producing as little information as possible," Ditlow said.
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Old 12-08-2003, 07:53   #3 (permalink)
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

Critics say the fuel tank is in a perilous position

December 8, 2003

BY JENNIFER DIXON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

The Ford Crown Victoria, the Lincoln Town Car and the Mercury Grand Marquis are an old breed of big, traditional rear-wheel-drive sedans.

All three vehicles get five stars from the federal government for holding up in front-end crashes, and at least four of five stars for side-impact crashes. The Grand Marquis and Crown Victoria also get top crash ratings from the well-respected Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by the insurance industry.

But critics say the cars have a dangerous flaw: a vertically mounted steel gas tank sandwiched between the trunk and the rear axle that is exposed to bolts and flanges. They say the tank is susceptible to puncture in a rear-impact crash, which could lead to intense and almost instantaneous fires.

Ford says 3.5 million of the vehicles, built since 1992, are on the road today, including 350,000 Crown Victoria Police Interceptors.

Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine, said that when Ford built the three big sedans, the location of the gas tank was accepted technology.

But today, he said, it is "no longer regarded as state of the art. That's a vanishing example. I haven't seen a new car designed that way in ages."

David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, says the three Ford cars are "sort of behind the times . . . most of the gas tanks these days are in front of the rear axle."

Michael Harrigan, chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineers' Fuel Systems Standards Committee, said most passenger cars built today have fuel tanks located between the front and rear suspensions. The society is a professional association of engineers; its fuel systems committee authors and adopts industry standards on most aspects of fuel systems.

"The perception is that it is a more protected location," Harrigan said.

The Crown Vic, Town Car and Grand Marquis are built on the Panther platform, a design launched in 1979 with aV8 engine, rear-wheel drive and body-on-frame construction, which makes them rugged and durable. Ford redesigned the cars in 1992, though the gas tank remained in the same location.

"Architecturally, it is still very true to what it was 20, 25 years ago," said Lindsay Brooke, a senior analyst at CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, an automotive industry forecasting and analysis firm. "That is a primary reason why Ford is still making nice profits on the car."

Ford insists the Crown Vic's gas tank is not a safety hazard. To build a car with the features that policesay they want, the company says it has little choice but to keep the tank behind the rear axle.

"If the car needs a frame rail because it's going over curbs and getting high mileage and rough use and it needs to be a rear-wheel pursuit vehicle and it needs a live rear axle for durability and performance, we don't have options," said Doug Lampe, a lawyer for Ford. "We have one good spot, and it's the spot we've chosen in the Crown Victoria."

Csere said Ford cannot easily move the gas tank without complete reengineering.

"The architecture of that car doesn't allow it," Csere said. "They'd have to start from scratch."

Brooke said the expense of redesigning a vehicle is difficult to calculate, but he puts the total costs of retooling the factory to build a reengineered vehicle at $550 million to $670 million.
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Old 12-08-2003, 07:55   #4 (permalink)
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

FORD STANDS BY ITS CAR

December 8, 2003

The Free Press met with Ford Motor Co. representatives Oct. 30to discuss the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor's safety record. Following are excerpts from comments made by Sue Cischke, vice president for environmental and safety engineering at Ford.

PEOPLE HAVE DIED in every vehicle out there. There's not a nameplate vehicle out there that people haven't died in, but does that make it an issue?

HERE'S A VEHICLE that's been out there from 1992 to 2003 -- 350,000 of them, we believe, on the road. And again, they are driving in many cases three shifts a day. They are going to be exposed. . . . This is really frustrating to me because deaths occur every year on the road, and we're not appalled as a country that we could be saving so many people if they would just wear their seat belts and not drive drunk. That doesn't seem to energize anybody.

PEOPLE HAVE SAID that tank location is a factor. . . . The attributes of the vehicle are part of the design of the vehicle. In order to provide rear-wheel drive and body-on-frame -- which is very durable construction -- to provide this live axle, we put the tank in that spot. But we feel it's a very well-protected spot from a side impact. . . . It's protected by the frame rails, and it's protected by the wheels. By the way, it has a huge trunk that has a lot of crush (room) in the back as well.

I CAN TELL YOU that I think the Crown Vic is a very safe vehicle, and the data that's out there proves that. And the hundreds of incidents that we get, letters I get from police officers saying, 'This vehicle saved my life.' We're proud of this vehicle.

REGARDING THE SHIELDS, the upgrade kit, we know this is a safe car. The data show it. We also recognize that the police are exposed to unique risks. If we have a situation where we can add these shields and give them additional protection in a 75 m.p.h. crash, I can't tell you that's always going to be effective. I don't think there's any manufacturer that can eliminate the risk of having a fuel leak. We're trying to improve the situation.

If you think trying to improve a product makes it defective, I can ask you, are all the vehicles that were ever sold without air bags defective? Are all the vehicles that have ever been in an accident defective? The answer is no.

IF YOU DRIVE OUT along the road, every police officer has their own way of doing things, but we know there are better ways of doing things. We've encouraged state legislatures to pass move-over laws to protect officers. We've asked: Is there a way to make pull-over areas to protect them? Do they really need to be using their vehicle as a construction site blocker when there's equipment today that is far better for that? . . . And we recognize that no manufacturer can eliminate the potential for a leak in a very high-speed, high-energy crash. We're trying to push the technology even further by looking into fire suppression (for the 2005 Police Interceptor), which we announced in August.

SHOULD WE BE in the police car business? When you look at the hazardous nature of duty the police have, it's a tough business to be in. They're using their vehicles around the clock, very heavy-duty, running over curbs and things in a very tough environment. With all that we've done and all that we are doing in terms of technology, we may say this isn't a good business for us to be in. When we've mentioned that to some of the police, they feel very sad about that because they feel this is a great car. If you talk to folks, the people who write to me, they can tell you lots of great stories about how great the Crown Vic is. It would be a real shame if they didn't have that as part of the equipment to do their job. We're just trying to provide them with part of that equipment. It doesn't mean that we'll be in this business forever. We have to look at it as a business situation and indicate that, at some point in time, we may not be in this market.
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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

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Old 12-08-2003, 07:58   #5 (permalink)
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

POLICE PERSPECTIVE: Officers pick Crown Vic, saying it's rugged, quick

December 8, 2003

BY JENNIFER DIXON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

For law enforcement officers, the Ford Crown Victoria is the police car of choice.

Eighty-five percent of cop cars on the road are the Crown Vic Police Interceptor, the heavy-duty, police version of the sedan.

Officers praise it as being rugged and responsive. With a V8 engine and rear-wheel drive, the Crown Vic handles well during pursuits, as they navigate harrowing turns or bounce between curb and street, police say. It's also roomy and comfortable for officers who spend eight hours a day or more behind the wheel, sharing the front seat with shotguns, radios, radar and computers.

"Ford, in my opinion, is the way to go," said Sheriff Jimmy Mullins in Lincoln County, Tenn., who drives a 2003 Crown Vic and has about two dozen police vehicles running the county's crooked, hilly roads.

"And every one is a Ford," he said.

In Detroit, the Police Department is sticking with the Crown Vic for its patrol officers.

Inspector Todd Bettison, who oversees the department's fleet, recently ordered 50 new Crown Vics for Detroit officers and said he would like to buy more.

"I don't want to be hit at all," he said. "But if given a choice, I'd rather be in a Crown Vic."

Said Calvin Hullett, president of the police union in Nashville, Tenn.: "It just hugs the road and, you hang in there. . . . I never found a car that ran better than that."

Although police cars account for a fraction of any automakers' sales, they are considered testimonials to the toughness of similar models sold to the public. And General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG are going after a slice of that market.

GM virtually abandoned the police market in 1996 when it stopped building its Chevrolet Caprice but returned in 1999 with a 2000 police version of the Impala, a front-wheel-drive car.

Dodge launched a police version of its Intrepid, which also has front-wheel drive, in January 2002 but stopped building the vehicle this past September. DaimlerChrysler is planning to build a new vehicle in 2004 with rear-wheel drive and independent rear suspension. One version, the Magnum, will be marketed to police.

Concerns about the Crown Victoriacatching fire in rear-impact crasheshave prompted some law enforcement agencies to switch to the Impala or Intrepid, while others go with the lowest bid.

The police department in Tempe, Ariz., is replacing its fleet of Crown Victorias with Impalas.

In some cases, departments have run into hitches when buying different models.

The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County in Tennessee said it discovered a problem with brakes catching fire on the 2004 Intrepid.

The government ordered 50 of the cars. It tested two March 11. Two others were tested April 3. According to Nashville's lawyer, the front brakes on all four caught fire.

The brakes of a fifth car burst into flames as a Parks Department employee was driving the Intrepid in normal afternoon traffic, the lawyer said in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

DaimlerChrysler has questioned the city's tests and said the cars are safe. The metropolitan government has insisted it will not drive them.

For Arizona state Trooper Pat Eagan, the Crown Vic remains the best option.

"They'll probably bury me in one of these cars," he said. "It's comfortable and quick. No one has been able to show me a safer car."

Still, he acknowledges he's more wary since three Arizona officers died in their Crown Vic cruisers and a fourth was badly burned in recent years.

Eagan is always alert to the sound of screeching tires behind him and, with every stop on the side of the highway, now has a decision to make. Does he stay in his car as he writes up a motorist and risk being rear-ended? Or does he stand outside his vehicle, on a sliver of shoulder and risk being struck by a car?

"It's changed how we do our job and how we think of things," he said.
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Old 12-08-2003, 08:01   #6 (permalink)
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

FACES BEHIND THE POLICE CAR FIRES

December 8, 2003

Fiery, rear-impact crashes have killed at least 18 police officers in Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors since the 1980s. Following are a dozen victims:

Steven Agner, 30 The Madison County, Fla., sheriff's deputy, was rear-ended by a college student in a pickup while assisting a road construction crew in his new Crown Vic on July 26, 1999. The police car caught fire. A fellow officer tried to save Agner, but couldn't.

Robert Ambrose, 31 The New York trooper was killed Dec. 19, 2002, in Yonkers as he sat in his 2000 Crown Victoria on a shoulder of the New York State Thruway. A drunken driver lost control and struck the Crown Vic from behind. Fire engulfed the patrol car.

Drew Haynes Brown, 29 A patrolman with the Cobb County police in suburban Atlanta, Brown was in his 1983 Crown Victoria on Dec. 17, 1983, when a drunken driver in a pickup hit him from behind. The Crown Vic's gas tank exploded, causing a fire.

Juan Cruz, 48 An Arizona trooper, he was completing paperwork in his 1996 Crown Vic when he was hit from behind on I-10 outside Tucson on Dec. 9, 1998. Trucker Clyde Tipp, who saw the wreck, recalled "you could hear all the windows breaking" on the cold night.

Floyd (Skip) Fink, 53 An Arizona trooper, Fink had just stopped a motorist for a traffic violation and was sitting on the shoulder of U.S.-60 in Tempe when a man driving a Honda Prelude slammed into his 1999 Crown Victoria on Feb. 18, 2000.

Hung Le, 29 The Louisiana trooper was diverting traffic from a construction zone on May 19, 1998, in Tangipahoa Parish. His 1996 Crown Vic was hit from behind. Rescuers were able to pull Le out, but he later died.

Patrick Lee Metzler, 31 The Dallas police officer was driving about 5 m.p.h. with a construction crew, the red lights flashing on his 2000 Crown Vic, when his car was hit from behind. It exploded into flames, killing him on Oct. 23, 2002.

Michael Newton, 25 The Missouri trooper died on May 22 after his new Crown Victoria was hit from behind by a Ford truck. The patrol car burst into flames. Newton could have survived if not for the fire, said J. Kent Emison, a lawyer suing Ford.

Robert Nielsen, 25 The Chandler, Ariz., officer died at 1:51 p.m. on June 12, 2002, after he swerved to avoid an elderly motorist. The rear of his 1999 Crown Vic hit a pole. The car burst into flames. Witnesses tried to save him, but couldn't.

Lynn Ross, 40 The Tennessee trooper was protecting a road crew working on I-40 on July 26, 2000, with the emergency lights of his 1998 Crown Vic flashing, when he was hit from behind. The car exploded and caught fire.

Robert Smith, 34 A Florida trooper, he was in the emergency lane of I-95 in Miami Shores at 3:05 a.m. on July 26, 1997, when his 1996 Crown Vic was rammed from behind by a drunken driver. It burst into flames.

Edward Truelove, 72 An auxiliary Connecticut state trooper, he died when his 1989 Crown Vic was hit from behind on Nov. 13, 1992, in Cheshire, Conn. It exploded into flames. Truelove was a week away from his 73rd birthday.
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Old 12-08-2003, 20:09   #7 (permalink)
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

This on-going COS finally persuaded me to go and look at statistics from other countries to see what sort of incident rates they have.
The only other countries to keep good statistics (that I can find) are Switzerland, Germany and the UK.

I've picked the German stats on the basis that there are enough large RWD sedans around, there is a likelihood of higher speed impacts than Switzerland and they detail their fatalities by vehicle make.

The mean accident fatality rate for the large vehicle class in rear end impacts is 1.32 which compares well against the Crown Vic at 1.0.

Without wishing to sound unkind, I wouldn't realistically expect any 1.8 tonne vehicle to not catch fire after being belted in the rear by a 2 tonne pick up truck travelling at 70 mph. Unfortunate for those involved but even if we accept the Free Press analysis and say that the Caprice was used instead there would only be 3 less dead people - assuming that the incident rate didn't change when they were used in police duty.

Just proves you can tell any lie you like with statistics.

Let's bash the Clown Vic for being an ugly POS but not for being unsafe.

Cheers
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Old 12-09-2003, 07:51   #8 (permalink)
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

A FREE PRESS INVESTIGATION: Rebuffed by Ford, cops look for car fixes alone

Mechanics work to stop officers' fiery deaths in Crown Victorias

December 9, 2003

BY JENNIFER DIXON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Last of two parts.

Mike Fuson was tired of waiting for help from Ford Motor Co.

By the summer of 2001, two Arizona troopers were dead. A Phoenix cop was in the hospital, comatose and badly burned.

They all had one thing in common: Their Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor had caught fire when it was hit from behind.

For months, Ford had assured Fuson and his colleagues at the Arizona Department of Public Safety that nothing was wrong with the Crown Vic.

Unsatisfied, Fuson decided to test a theory that summer. Could a piece of rubber radiator hose prevent more fires?

"I wanted to come up with something in a relatively short period of time," said Fuson, who is responsible for maintenance on state police cars as fleet manager for the Department of Public Safety. "I had a sense of urgency."

He bought the hose at an auto supply store and began shaping it into a prototype shield for the rear shock towers, which connect the shock absorbers to the car's frame. Fuson was concerned that the Crown Vic's 19-gallon steel gas tank -- mounted behind the rear axle -- was susceptible to punctures from sharp parts around the axle.

He then hired a company specializing in building aircraft components to manufacture high-density plastic shields, based on his rubber sample. His mechanics installed the covers on about 900 state-owned Crown Vic police cruisers that summer and fall.

Fuson recalled that he gave samples of the shock tower covers to Ford and told the company: "This is what you guys need to be doing for everybody."

Ford, however, insisted that the shields weren't necessary, he said. The company would maintain that position for another year.

It was the kind of exchange that police and mechanics say they had had with Ford since 1999, when a Florida trooper first raised questions about the Crown Vic. At the time, the trooper had recommended that Ford install safety shields and take other steps to protect the gas tank from exploding in rear-end crashes.

While Fuson's team was revamping state police vehicles in 2001, city mechanics in Mesa, Ariz., also were experimenting with shields. They, too, built their own. A photo dates their efforts to July 10 of that year.

"We wanted to do whatever was in our power to provide safety for the officers," said Dick Skalitzky, fleet support services superintendent for the City of Mesa.

Skalitzky said the city ended up not using its own shields because he thought Ford soon would have something available.

Fuson's mechanics, while devising their shields, discovered other puncture sources near the gas tank. They found that a hexagonal-headed mounting bolt for the parking brake cable posed a puncture risk. They also determined that the tank could be vulnerable to some tabs on the stabilizer bar mounting brackets, which are rear axle components. They replaced the hex-headed bolt with a round one and grinded down the tabs.

In Tempe, Ariz., where Trooper Skip Fink had been killed in a 2000 rear-impact fire, the Police Department made the same discovery involving the bolt and sharp tabs.

Tempe's mechanics also decided to replace the bolt and to grind down the tabs, but advised Ford before doing so.

The automaker refused to acknowledge a problem and told Tempe that if it made the modifications, Ford no longer would honor the warranties on the city's Crown Vics, said Police Chief Ralph Tranter.

"Our yard people started doing the modifications themselves," Tranter said. "We felt it was important."

Doug Lampe, a lawyer for Ford, denied that Ford would stop honoring the city's warranties.

"Ford never told Arizona mechanics we would void their warranty if they replaced the bolts," Lampe said. "It wouldn't have affected warranty coverage."

The mechanics in Tempe began the work in thesummer of 2001.

That October, Ford shifted its stance. It sent a technical service bulletin to dealerships and police agencies, advising them to replace the hex-headed bolt with a round bolt. Ford also told them to grind down the tabs on the stabilizer bar mounting brackets on the Crown Vic, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis. Ford said the fixes were recommended for vehicles exposed to "extremely high-speed rear impacts."

There was no mention of safety shields.

Prompted by Ford's bulletin, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided to investigate the three models. At 11:28 a.m. Nov. 2, 2001,Ford's manager of production vehicle safety and compliance informed three colleagues by e-mail that NHTSA had called to let him know it was preparing to open an investigation.

The manager, Bill Koeppel, expressed concern. The regulatory agency, he said, had been talking with lawyers who had sued the company as a result of police deaths and had learned that the lawyers had a set of minutes from a July 2001 meeting at Ford.

During that meeting, someone from the company was cited as saying that Ford "got an agreement NHTSA will not open" a Crown Vic investigation.

Koeppel's e-mail described the minutes as inaccurate, but nonetheless noted concern.

"Our credibility has been damaged," he said in the e-mail. "I am meeting with them next Wednesday on another subject and would like to be fully up to speed so that I am able to address some of the things that are bothering them."

The agency opened its investigation Nov. 27, 2001.
State, departments seek solutions

In early 2002, Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano was running for governor -- and had taken up the Crown Vic as a cause.

On March 4 of that year, Napolitano sent an eight-page letter to Ford's chairman and chief executive, Bill Ford, questioning his company's credibility.

She noted that his company, in marketing the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, had touted it as uniquely well-suited to police work because it has many special features, including heavy-duty frame and suspension, a unique 4.6-liter engine with pursuit calibration and a deep trunk for equipment. The rear-wheel-drive car also has a live rear axle, which means it moves up and down with the drive shaft, making the car responsive. To accommodate the design, Ford had placed the gas tank behind the rear axle in an area Napolitano referred to as a crush zone.

"All of these features illustrate Ford's recognition that its specialty vehicle is designed to be used in situations involving high-speed driving and severe duty," Napolitano said in the letter. "As Ford's customer, the State of Arizona had a right to and did rely on Ford's self-professed expertise and experience in designing a crashworthy police vehicle. The State of Arizona had the right to assume that when Ford made an engineering judgment to place the tank of the CVPI in the crush zone, its engineers would utilize available, state-of-the-art features to ensure that the integrity of the gas tank was protected in a highway-speed rear impact."

But an investigation by the state, according to Napolitano's letter, found that Ford never had crash-tested a Crown Vic Police Interceptor at speeds in excess of 50 m.p.h. -- and it never had crash-tested a fully equipped version of the police car at any speed.

"The State of Arizona believes that Ford, with its experience and expertise in the design and engineering of police vehicles, should have made the CVPIs safe and crashworthy when they were sold," the letter said. "Instead, based on information gathered during our investigation and information provided by Ford, Ford took no steps to provide for the safety of the CVPI fuel system at highway speeds. . . . The lack of crash-testing at highway speeds and the failure of Ford to promptly act to remediate what clearly continues to be a defective condition is highly disturbing."

Napolitano also criticized the way Ford responded to the state's request for information, saying it raised "questions as to Ford's credibility."

Lampe, the Ford lawyer, said he does not think Napolitano still considers Ford unresponsive.

"We had dozens of meetings with our police customers," Lampe said. "We explained the science and the engineering."

Before sending the letter, he said, neither Napolitano nor anyone in the Attorney General's Office had had any contact with Ford. She and the company have since established a relationship, he said.

Ford opened talks with Napolitano in her offices on June 4, 2002, three months to the day after her letter was sent.

Eight days later, a Crown Vic fire claimed another Arizona cop.

Officer Robert Nielsen, 25, was on his way to an accident scene in downtown Chandler, outside Phoenix, when he swerved to avoid hitting another motorist. The rear of his 1999 Crown Vic struck a steel light pole and caught fire. Customers and employees from a Denny's restaurant came out to try to free Nielsen. But the car doors were jammed. They sprayed the fire with extinguishers, but it was futile. Nielsen died of thermal injuries and smoke inhalation. He had no life-threatening injuries from the impact, the autopsy found, and could have survived, except for the fire.

By now, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza had lost patience with Ford Motor. He wrote to Bill Ford on June 18, saying it was time to "correct the design of the Crown Victoria to eliminate this safety hazard once and for all."

The next day, six Ford executives met with Mike Lopker, manager of the City of Phoenix's police fleet, and his boss, Mark Leonard, the city's public works director, at the Phoenix fleet maintenance yard. Ford Motor had set up the meeting before Rimsza wrote his letter.

The Ford executives passed out an eight-page brochure that said postcrash fires were rare and could be explained by the "unique circumstances of each accident, rather than any particular design attribute."

The brochure said the Crown Vic had a "proven track record as a safe, reliable vehicle for police use." And it touted the automaker's relationship with police, saying the Crown Vic is the preferred police vehicle because "Ford works with police departments and meets their requirements."

Halfway through the meeting -- conducted separately from Napolitano's efforts -- Leonard announced that the city was going to install heavy liners inside the gas tanks of its 650 Crown Vic police cars to prevent fuel spills during a wreck.

Lopker recalled Leonard as telling the Ford officials: "We don't need to hear how safe the car is. I don't think you understand. We're going to do bladders. That's a foregone conclusion. . . . Will you help us?" Lopker said the Ford officials tried to talk him and Leonard out of installing the liners, which would cost the city $1.5 million. But the company finally agreed to provide engineering help for the installations.

On June 25, Napolitano met with Ford executives in Dearborn.

Ford remained adamant, she said, that the gas tank was safe and could not be moved.

"They were never agreeable to moving the tank," she said. "They said it wouldn't make a difference."

But Ford Motor agreed to set up a technical task force of company engineers and outside experts, as well as a panel -- that eventually included members of law enforcement -- that would try to make "a safe car even safer." Ford and Napolitano said the task force would look at the use of bladders or shields to protect the gas tank.

Three months later, on Sept. 27, 2002, the panel and Ford announced a plan. Ford executives said during a news conference in Phoenix that the company would install plastic shield kits to protect the gas tanks of 350,000 Crown Victoria police cars on the road nationwide. Ford is also installing those kits in the factory.

By then, three years had passed since state troopers in Florida had begun investigating fiery crashes of Crown Vics -- and had issued a report recommending some of the same actions Ford was now taking. In that time, at least four officers had died nationwide -- and another was badly burned.

Ford insisted that only police cars would need the shields; civilian drivers weren't at risk as much as officers.

On Oct. 3, six days after the Ford announcement, NHTSA closed its investigation and said it had found no manufacturing defect in the Crown Vic, the Town Car or the Grand Marquis.

The agency said the Ford vehicles met federal safety standards. Those standards, set in the 1970s, require the fuel tank to withstand a rear crash from a car going just 30 m.p.h. The agency is raising the standard to 50 m.p.h. The standard will be phased in starting with the 2007 model year. NHTSA said Ford already meets that standard for the three vehicles.

But not all rear-end crashes involving the Crown Vic have been above 50 m.p.h.

Hector Bermudez was driving down Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance, Calif., as he patrolled the city after midnight with his partner, Mark Athan, on Nov. 6, 2002. They stopped for a red light, and a drunken man driving a 2002 Hyundai Sonata rear-ended their 2000 Crown Victoria at about 40 m.p.h. Both officers were knocked unconscious.

Athan awoke first and, after noticing that Bermudez was still out, realized the car was on fire. He jumped out the passenger door, and his next memory was of the fire, the way the car was filled with smoke, the back and roof ablaze. He circled around the rear of the cruiser and opened Bermudez's door.

"Wake up! Get up. GET UP!" he yelled at Bermudez, trying to pull him up from the driver's seat. Bermudez began coming to and pushed himself out the door as ammunition popped in the trunk. The gas tank had been punctured by a crowbar.

Athan and Bermudez were lucky.

Patrick Metzler, a Dallas police officer, and Robert Ambrose, a New York state trooper, were not.

Metzler died in his Crown Vic in October 2002. Ambrose died in his Crown Vic in December 2002.

And with their deaths, the fears about the cars had spread well beyond the police agencies and mechanics' garages of Arizona and Florida to places such as Texas, New York and Louisiana.

In January, Louisiana's attorney general, Richard Ieyoub, said he was recommending an immediate moratorium on the purchase of Crown Vic Police Interceptors until Ford was able to show that the cars would not burst into flames upon rear impact.

"What is particularly disturbing," Ieyoub said in a news release, "in virtually each accident in which an officer died, the officer would have otherwise survived the accident, but was burned to death."

Legislative hearings followed in New York and Texas.

Then came another fiery rear-end crash -- this time in Missouri.

Trooper Michael Newton died the morning of May 22 in a Crown Victoria that had the new safety shields. The gas tank had a small puncture, and the filler neck had been severed.

A week later, Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson wrote a letter to Bill Ford, appealing to him to make the Crown Vic safer.

The letter asked Ford to "work with us to bring this chain of tragic events to an end. Continuation of police officer death by fire is not acceptable."

Sue Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering, responded within days, telling Johnson that Ford had tried to meet with the Dallas Police Department but had been denied access.

"That is regrettable because I believe we could have addressed concerns, as we have with dozens of departments nationally, by demonstrating both the outstanding safety record of the CVPI and the work we have done with the law enforcement community," Cischke said in a letter.

Two months later, Ford announced another change for the Crown Vic -- an optional fire suppression system more often found inside military armored personnel carriers. The system, which Ford called an automotive industry first, will be available starting with the 2005 model.
Recovering trooper unable to return

It's been more than a year since rescuers pulled New York Trooper George Rought out of his flaming 1998 Crown Victoria, and he's still afraid to get back in the car.

With his car's emergency lights flashing, Rought was diverting traffic from a low-lying utility line stretched across part of a highway in Hinsdale, N.Y, on Aug. 5, 2002.

A man hauling cattle with his pickup hit Rought's car from behind at about 50 m.p.h. Rought was knocked unconscious as his car caught fire.

Six people rushed to the car, including two semitrailer drivers who tried to douse the flames with extinguishers. The others pried open the passenger door and yanked Rought out.

As he was dragged away, the car exploded.

"Another 20 seconds," he said, "it would have been too hot to get me."

Rought needed 23 staples to close a wound in the back of his head. He also had a herniated disk between his shoulders.

Today, Rought, 49, is on disability and unable to work. He's seeing a psychologist. This summer, he stopped by his old trooperstation and got in a Crown Vic to see how it felt.

"Just being in the car . . . I didn't like that sensation at all," he said. "I don't want to get in a Crown Vic ever again."
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Re: U.S.A.:Ford insists cars safe, but cops keep dying

AMONG THE UNHEARD STORIES: Death leaves a void in NASCAR family

New mom, sisters are trapped in a blazing Town Car limousine

December 9, 2003

BY JENNIFER DIXON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

SYLWIA KAPUSCINSKI/DFP

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Tara Howell Parker's life finally was coming together.

Her heart transplant two years earlierwas an established success. Her husband's rise through the NASCAR ranks was in high gear. The baby they wanted to adopt was at home with them in their brick colonial.

The former Miss Winston had everything she'd ever wanted on that September evening when she left 2-month-old Jagger with her husband, Shawn Parker, crew chief to race car driver Dale Jarrett, for a night out with her sisters, Mysti and Megan.

Hours later, as the sisters headed home from a Fleetwood Mac concert in Greensboro, N.C., a pickup barreled into the back of their rented Lincoln Town Car limousine. It burst into flames.

Police say the fuel tank was punctured, and gas spewed out of the cracks.

"The fire and the heat was so intense, I couldn't even get close to the doors to see if I could even get the doors open," said the limo driver, James Canady.
Largely unnoticed

The Howell sisters are among dozens of people whose deaths have gone largely unnoticed in the scrutiny of fiery, rear-impact crashes in Ford Crown Victorias.

Attention has focused mainly on the police version of the Crown Vic. But the Crown Vic is built on the same basic mechanical underpinnings as the Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis.

The Free Press has documented at least 69 fatalities in rear-impact crashes with fire in the three sedans since 1980. Eighteen were police.

Ford Motor Co. has declined to discuss the number of civilian fatalities, saying people die at no greater rate in the Crown Vic, Town Car and Grand Marquis than in other vehicles. The gas tank in all three sedans is behind the rear axle. Critics say the tank is susceptible to puncture in rear-end crashes.

Although Ford insists all three cars are safe, the company has taken several steps to protect the gas tanks in the Crown Vic Police Interceptor, including shields that cover sharp parts of the rear axle. But the company says the changes aren't needed for civilian models because civilians are not in dangerous roadside situations as often as police.

"There have been civilian deaths in every make and model," said Ford lawyer Doug Lampe, referring to all types of cars. "While each one is tragic, what we know is every make and model is susceptible to fuel-fed fire in a high-speed rear impact. That is not evidence of a defect, but evidence that they were hit at high speeds."

Joan Claybrook said she thinks there is a problem with the Crown Vic, Grand Marquis and Town Car and that Ford needs to make not just police cars safer, but civilian vehicles as well.

"I don't see any reason to make a distinction," said Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., and a former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Fire was the only cause of death

If not for the fire, Howell Parker, 29, Mysti Howell Poplin, 24, and Megan Elizabeth Howell, 16, would have survived the crashwith minor injuries. Autopsies showed they burned to death.

In the heart of NASCAR country, the sisters' deaths hit especially hard.

Jarrett, who drives No. 88, a Ford Taurus, said there were no words to express the overwhelming sadness he felt.

In a statement the day after the accident, Jarrett called Howell Parker a special person who "exemplified the true meaning of perseverance and determination."

Lampe said the Town Car had been lengthened into a limousine, which could affect its performance in a rear-end crash.

Ford Motor says the Town Car line meets current 30 m.p.h. federal safety standards for rear-end crashes, as well as Ford's own higher standards of 50 m.p.h.

The sisters' Town Car was struck by a vehicle going about 60 m.p.h., Lampe said.
A lifelong battle

Howell Parker had suffered from heart problems all her life. She had her first heart surgery when she was 6 days old. Her heart had just a single ventricle.

Growing up in Mocksville, N.C., Howell Parker was a skinny child with a blue cast to her skin.

As a teenager, she was a cheerleader and on the dance squad. After high school, she assumed the role of Miss Winston, traveling the NASCAR circuit, handing out cigarettes in the stands, congratulating the winners.

She met Shawn Parker in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1997.

She knew who he was and approached him at a restaurant. The next night, they had dinner.

And Parker found himself taking the pretty young woman with the weak heart to the hospital several nights a week. Past surgeries had led to a buildup of scar tissue, causing her heart to beat irregularly.

Three years after they met, in July 2000, Howell Parker had open heart surgery, and it didn't go well. Her kidneys failed, and she went on dialysis.

She and Parker planned their wedding from her hospital bed.

They married on Nov. 25, 2000, but there would be no honeymoon.

The following May, she went to see her doctor for tests and was admitted into the hospital. She wouldn't leave for weeks, until she had a new heart.

From her hospital bed, she made pins of green ribbon, a symbol of organ donation. And with her laptop computer, she talked to NASCAR fans by e-mail about her wait for a heart and the need for organ donors.

"Racing," Parker said, "is one big family."

And as she waited 12 weeks for a heart, she listened to tapes from her preacher and kept a journal.

She said in the journal: "I continue to pray each day."

The tapes, she wrote, "help me to remain faithful to the Lord at all times and to not give up. I won't give up. I treasure my life and my family way too much."

On July 28, 2001, a heart arrived from Savannah, Ga., from a pedestrian hit by a car.

By then, Howell Parker was so weak she needed her mother, Cathy Merritt, and her grandmother to help her take a bath or fix her hair.

She left the hospital in August but was on dialysis until December.
A new hope

In fall 2002, she and Parker talked about starting a family, and in January, they began the paperwork for adoption.

Soon, a pregnant woman chose them to be her baby's parents.

Howell Parker's life became a blur of baby showers and preparations for a newborn.

The call came on July 6. Howell Parker arrived at the hospital 25 minutes after the birth.

The birth mother handed her the little boy. She and Parker called him Jagger Alexander Parker.

"Everything was right for us," Parker said.

"She was finally getting over the hurdle of all this heart surgery," he said. "I was doing what I wanted to do. We couldn't ask for anything else."

On that night in September, Howell Parker was in the mood to celebrate with Mysti, her stepsister and a young mother herself, and Megan, her half sister, a high school junior and aspiring doctor.

Howell Parker rented the limousine so she wouldn't have to drive. Her father thought they would be safer that way.

Her husband prefers not to talk about the wreck and controversy over the fuel tank location.

Cathy Merritt misses her daily conversations with Howell Parker. She longs for the daughter who rescued stray animals and always said hello and good-bye with a hug.

"She used to tell me: 'You know, Mama, I love Daddy and I love Shawn, but you're my mama. You are mine,' " Merritt said.

"We were blessed to have her for 29 years."
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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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