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Mr. Embargo
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Location of Crown Vic's fuel tank is safety concern

By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ford Motor Co. faces off today with one of the most outspoken critics of the safety performance of the automaker's Crown Victoria police cruiser.

The fire-related deaths of three Arizona police officers have raised safety questions about the Crown Victoria -- notably the placement of the fuel tank -- prompting Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano to meet with top Ford engineers.

Consumers will have a stake in the outcome of the meeting between Arizona's top law enforcement official and Ford Motor Co.'s top safety official in Dearborn.

The location of the Crown Vic fuel tank -- Napolitano's top concern -- is the same for the police cruiser and all "panther platform" models sold to consumers, including the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Lincoln Town Car.

Arizona has conducted an extensive investigation into the fuel tank of the full-size rear-wheel drive Crown Vic -- a favorite of police departments across the country for its size, power and handling.

Arizona officials say placing the fuel tank behind the rear axle puts the tank within the vehicle's "crumple zone" in a rear-end collision.

The tank is also vulnerable to puncture from a parking cable bolt, a stabilizer bar bracket, and -- in newer models -- towers that hold its rear shock absorbers.

In a scathing, nine-page letter to Ford Chairman and CEO William Clay Ford Jr. dated March 4, Napolitano demanded a recall of all police and civilian Crown Victorias, comparing its fuel tank design to the infamous Ford Pinto. She specifically criticized Ford for not running crash tests on the police cruisers at speeds greater than 50 mph.

"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 wrote.

Attorney general spokeswoman Pati Urias would not confirm whether Napolitano will seek a broad recall in today's meeting with Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president for environmental and safety engineering.

"We feel these cars can be made safer, and that's what we'd like to work out with Ford," Urias said.

Ford controls about 85 percent of the U.S. police cruiser market. It made about 60,000 Crown Victoria models for law enforcement agencies last year, all at its St. Thomas assembly plant near London, Ontario.

A 25-year-old Arizona state trooper died earlier this month when his cruiser burst into flames, adding to the pressure on Ford. Other Arizona officers were killed in February 2000 and December 1998. Many police in Arizona say they feel unsafe in their Crown Vic cruisers. There have also been deaths in Texas, Florida and Tennessee. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull placed a new order of 200 new police cruisers on hold until the state gets a response from Ford.

Ford says there is nothing wrong with the cruisers, which meet a regimen of tests that go beyond federal safety standards, including three different 50-mph crash tests. Ford officials point out the number of fire-related crashes is small compared with many safety-related recalls. The explosions reflect the extremely high-speed crashes -- about 70 mph -- not a design problem, Ford says.

"There's no safety issue with the vehicle." said Ford spokeswoman Sarah Tatchio. "In high-speed crashes, vehicles behave in very unpredictable ways. The safety structure of the Crown Victoria is outstanding, and that's supported by real-world safety data."

The Department of Public Safety -- which oversees Arizona's highway patrols -- has retrofitted its 784 Crown Victorias to replace the parking cable bolt with a rivet and to grind down stabilizer bars, steps authorized by Ford in a technical service bulletin issued to dealers last year. But the department has declined to install more expensive replacement tanks with bladders, a cushioning feature to resist ruptures. And not all Arizona police officers are clamoring for new cruisers.

"Most of our officers are pretty confident in the vehicles," said Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve Volden. "They've got bigger things to worry about.

Federal regulations call for a 30-mph rear crash test, which critics say is woefully inadequate for ordinary passenger cars, let alone police cruisers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed upgrading the standard in November 2000 to include a 50-mph rear crash test. The final regulation will not be finished until this fall.

Meanwhile, NHTSA last year launched a defect investigation on the fuel tank integrity of all Crown Victorias, Grand Marquis and Town Cars built between 1992 and 2001. The probe is in its early stages, said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson.

NHTSA launched a study after receiving eight complaints involving 10 crashes of the vehicles, resulting in eight fatalities and 15 injuries.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group, argues that there are several remedies available to Ford to fix the Crown Victoria, many adopted by other manufacturers over the years. Ford itself offers a bladder-equipped fuel tank on the souped-up Cobra model of the Mustang.

"The problem is readily fixable. But the issue is how many deaths there are. It's way down on NHTSA's priority list," he said.
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