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NHSTA Closes Investigation of Ford CVPI

Written by Dennis Tucker

Unless you live on the moon, you most likely have heard about the high-speed rear impact collisions with the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (CVPI) and the resulting fires in very rare instances. I won’t tell you the fires didn’t happen and I can’t tell how exactly they did happen, except to say the impacts were at a minimum of 60mph and in one instance, over 100mph. Numerous articles have been written on the issue as well as being plastered all over the evening news. Let’s face it: a police car on fire makes news and when it results in a fatality it’s an even a bigger story.

Facing this issue in my own fleet makes me an insider, and being on Ford’s Police Advisory Board provides additional insight into this issue. I certainly feel for the families of the officers who lost their lives, but I don’t believe it’s realistic to blame the deaths solely on the Ford CVPI. Is it fair for the Arizona Attorney General to say the CVPI needs to be built to higher standards than the retail version of the Crown Vic just because it is a police vehicle?

Read the literature from each of the big three manufacturers and tell me if any of them guarantee the occupants will be safe from high-speed collisions or other types of crashes. An analogy is telling a commercial airline pilot his plane will never crash and yet crashes happen all too frequently. Any vehicle is only as safe as the conditions in which it is operated. When police vehicles are parked along high-speed interstates, the possibility always exists that a crash can happen and the impact will not be a slight tap to the bumper.

My agency has 400 crashes a year and 75% of those are in the CVPI, and our officers have walked away from these on their own power. We had one fire in a 1996 CVPI that did not result in any injuries. But, unfortunately, we did have a high-speed rear impact crash in 1995 resulting in fire that killed the trooper as he was sitting in his 1993 Chevrolet Caprice.

Fires can happen in any vehicle, as supported by the 1999 Rear End Collision Study by the Florida Highway Patrol. This report identified 24 rear-end crashes of police vehicles resulting in a fatality. Of these 24 crashes, nine were in Crown Victorias, five were in Ford Tauruses, eight were in Chevrolet Caprices and two were in Chevrolet Luminas. Three other rear-end crashes were identified without fatalities: two of these were in Caprices and the other in a CVPI.

The majority of fleet managers, command staff and troopers I’ve spoken with understand crashes happen. It’s part of the job nobody likes to talk about. But each is quick to point out that short of driving an armored tank, nothing on the road can guarantee a vehicle’s occupants will walk away injury free from a high-speed crash of any kind. Ford’s crash testing at 50 mph exceeds NHSTA’s criteria for crash testing the vehicle and the fuel tank. It’s difficult, therefore, to point a finger in Ford’s direction and say the company is not doing enough. NHSTA data even supports the fact that the CVPI has a lower incident rate of fire in all accident types than even the popular Ford Taurus.

Five hundred thousand CVPIs are used to patrol our roads and highways in the United States. According to Kevin Fitzpatrick, manager, State and Local Government Sales for Ford, “Ford has 75–85% of the police market.” Therefore, the logical assumption is that the odds of a CVPI being involved in any accident are eight to one, based on the number of vehicles sold. Is it any surprise why this issue has been thrust in Ford’s lap?

The Office of Defects Investigation, an arm of NHSTA, stated in its October 3, 2002, press release regarding the investigation of the CVPI fires: “At the time the investigation was opened, ODI was aware of reports alleging 17 post-crash fires in CVPI vehicles (14 within the scope of Ford’s TSB), which had led to 9 deaths. During the investigation, ODI identified 12 additional post-crash fires in the subject vehicles. There are 9 deaths resulting from these additional crashes although one crash involved 3 fatalities.” The press release goes on to state: “ODI is aware of only 4 fire-related rear crashes resulting in four deaths in the over 2.6 million civilian vehicles covered by the investigation in the 10 years in which they have been on the road. Similarly, ODI is aware of only 2 fire-related rear crashes in over 1.4 million non-police Chevrolet Caprice vehicles.”

Based on this investigation, the Office of Defects Investigation made the following conclusions: The CVPI meets the current federal motor vehicle safety standard for fuel system integrity. Ford currently meets a 50-mph fuel system leak integrity test, being proposed by NHSTA. Almost all of the post-crash fuel leaks occurred in very high-speed incidents with crash energies far exceeding federal standards. No single factor contributed to the post-crash fuel leaks in CVPI vehicles. In addition to the components identified in a Ford TSB, leaks were also caused by a deformed frame rail, shock absorber supports, the differential cover, and stowed items in the trunk. Numerous high-energy rear crashes in CVPIs have been investigated in which there was little or no loss of fuel. Based on an analysis of FARS data, the risk of fire per fatal rear crash in the CVPI vehicles was comparable to that of Chevrolet Caprice police vehicles. A study conducted by the Florida Highway Patrol reached similar conclusions.
Therefore based on these findings, ODI closed the investigation. However, it will continue to monitor the performance of these vehicles.

Although the ODI investigation was closed, Ford continued with its Police Officer Safety Action Plan. This plan was initiated by Ford in cooperation with Arizona’s Attorney General in June 2002, and included the formation of a Blue Ribbon Panel and Technical Task Force. On September 27, 2002, Ford and Arizona Attorney General presented their initial findings at a press conference. The Blue Ribbon Panel includes four members selected by Ford and four selected by the Arizona Attorney General and the chair of the Technical Task Force. The Technical Task Force is comprised of Ford engineers and experts from the military, racing and aviation industries.

Based on extensive analysis of rear-crash accidents in which fuel tank punctures and fires occurred, the panel found that some of the accidents were caused by items in the trunk resulting in high-energy impacts becoming puncture sources. Therefore, Ford designed a trunk storage compartment that fits in the well of the trunk and provides a puncture resistant rear wall to prevent objects from ramming through the trunk into the fuel tank. The storage unit will be available to police departments at manufacture cost.

Additionally, a paper template for best locations and methods to mount items in the CVPI trunk will be provided to law enforcement at no cost. All police departments need to be aware that trunk equipment can act as projectiles if not properly placed and secured. It’s also important for departments to review the equipment they carry in their trunks, determine if it’s safe there and if it’s even necessary.

In the coming months, the Blue Ribbon Panel will examine practices and procedures as they relate to positioning the police vehicle during traffic stop procedures; safety belt use; and they will also draft model legislation for traffic to vacate the lane next to a stopped police vehicle. Other areas to be researched include studying how vehicles are used as barriers in road construction areas and other restricted traffic situations. Finally, what can be done for the public to recognize a police vehicle stopped alongside the road so the driver isn’t pulled towards the police vehicle? Vehicle markings, emergency lighting, parking procedures, and the use of cones and flares will also be studied to see if there’s a best practice technique.

The Technical Task Force recommended the use of high-impact resistant shields for the CVPI for rear axle components, differential bolts in the center of the rear axle and for each of the two fuel tank straps. The areas covered by the shields were determined to be of minimal risk if conditions were right in a high-speed rear-impact to prevent the fuel tank from being punctured. Customer Satisfaction Program 02-B-02 provided information to retrofit all 1992–2002 CVPIs, including 2003 models built before October 1, 2002. This retrofit is at no cost to the customer and Ford has also stated it will reimburse departments for TSB 01-21-14 performed before September 27, 2002.

Although much has been written on the use fuel bladders, Ford has been unsuccessful in testing this product because the first shipment of bladders was recalled from the manufacturer and since then, the manufacturer has not provided Ford with the bladder so it can be tested. Bladders may seem like an easy solution, but under long-term use the chances of them passing stringent NHSTA standards for durability are doubtful at best. Ford has stated time and again that it is committed to testing bladders, when and if they are available.

One aspect of the Police Officer Safety Action Plan has been to provide the Web site of www.cvpi.com, where police departments can learn about the recent developments from the Panel and Task Force, and for information provided by Ford related to this concern. In addition, all departments must register their fleets though this Web site to take part in the TSB for the retrofit of the protective shields.

Although nobody can argue against how important it is for officers to feel safe in their vehicles, it must be stressed that police vehicles are not driven like retail vehicles. They are driven 10 times more hours each day, accumulate up to four times the annual miles that retail vehicles travel and typically stop alongside highways at least 1,000 more times than the average non-police vehicle (data provided by Ford’s study). The result is that they are involved in more accidents, and typically more severe accidents, than the normal person. Yet, the CVPI has proven itself to be a safe, effective police vehicle since 1992.

To Ford Motor Company’s credit, it has stepped-up and worked with the Arizona Attorney General to pursue all avenues to insure the CVPI is the safest police vehicle on the road. Although this may only be the beginning, the safety practices and engineering practices developed through this thorough process will benefit each and every officer as well as each vehicle manufacturer.

Dennis Tucker is the fleet manager for the Illinois State Police and can be reached at dennis_tucker@isp.state.il.us.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Jan/Feb 2002

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