The following was reported in Newsday on February 25, 2009, by Tom Incantalupo and Stacey Altherr:
Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers like the one involved in Sunday morning’s crash in Commack have been controversial for more than a decade for an alleged propensity for fuel leaks and fires when struck from behind as well as what critics say is marginal protection of drivers in side-impact crashes.
The location of the gas tank has been linked by critics to more than a dozen deaths of police officers, most in stopped cruisers struck from behind at high speeds.
In one case, attorney Mark Haney of Fort Worth, Texas, said yesterday he is suing Ford on behalf of the family of police officer Dwayne Freeto, who burned to death Dec. 17, 2006, when his squad car was hit from behind and burst into flames. “We allege that the Crown Victoria places its fuel tank in a vulnerable place – that it’s a bad design,” Haney said.
But Ford attorney Douglass Lampe contended in an interview that the tank’s location – about 80 percent above and entirely behind the rear axle, upright between the rear seatback and front wall of the trunk – gives the car superior protection in crashes.
Questions over whether the Crown Victoria’s design played any role in the death of Officer Glen Ciano has local union officials concerned. Jeff Frayler, president of Suffolk County’s Police Benevolent Association, said, “I’m going to be looking into this pretty seriously when the investigation is complete.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2001 and 2002 investigated 23 fires in civilian and police Crown Victorias and mechanically similar Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars that involved 14 deaths, mostly police officers. It concluded that the vehicles performed no worse than other sedans and that there was no evidence of a safety defect.
Still, Ford has modified the police and civilian cars since the early 1990s including, for police cars starting in 2002, adding five shields designed to reduce the chances that the fuel tank would be ruptured by various bolts, brackets and straps. Said Lampe, “What we’ve done is take a vehicle that the federal government investigated without finding a defect and we’ve improved it from that point.”
Beginning in 2005, Ford also offered, as an option, a fire suppression kit that automatically sprays foam in a crash and can be activated manually by a police officer. In 2009 cruisers, the system costs $3,495, said Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood in Michigan. He said about 10 percent of cruisers are ordered with it, but he could not say if any are in service in New York State.
Suffolk police would not release details of the patrol car driven by police Officer Glen Ciano, except to say it was a Crown Victoria. The department would not say if any of its cars are equipped with the optional fire suppression systems.
Nassau police spokesman Lt. Kevin Smith said the department retrofitted older patrol cars in 2002 with shields after an upstate trooper was killed in a rear-end explosion. He could not say whether the cars have been equipped with the fire suppression system.
The Crown Victoria is the most popular car available with police performance packages, accounting for about 85 percent of sales to law enforcement.
Police and civilian versions of the Crown Victoria came under criticism in 2006 from the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for what it called “marginal” protection of the driver in side impacts, even when equipped with side-impact air bags.
Accidents can trigger explosions a number of ways, especially in high-speed crashes. Cars contain flammable materials, including gasoline, oil and other combustibles, so leaks from ruptured fuel lines can ignite quickly.
Critics of the Ford Crown Victoria used by police departments say its fuel tank is located within its crush zone, the area that absorbs the energy of a severe impact. Such an impact can rupture the tank and cause an explosion. but Ford disagrees, contending the tank location gives superior protection.
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; crownvictoriasafetyalert.com
Cases in which Crown Victoria police cars have been involved in fiery crashes, according to the Web site crown victoriasafetyalert.com:
Nov. 22, 2008 – Hollywood, Fla., Police Officer Alex Del Rio is killed when his car crashed into a tree and burst into flames, trapping him inside. (Miami Herald)
Nov. 27, 2007 – An agreement is made to retrofit Arizona state troopers’ fleet of Crown Victoria patrol cars with fire suppression systems after two troopers, Joshua P. Risner and Dale R. Holcomb, were killed in a fiery crash in 2006. (The Associated Press)
Dec. 17, 2006 – Fort Worth police officer Dwayne Freeto dies when his Crown Victoria patrol car is hit from behind and bursts into flames. The family’s suit against the Ford Motor Co. is pending. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
May 2003 – Missouri highway patrol trooper Michael Newton is killed when his Crown Victoria patrol car was hit from behind and exploded. (Kansas City Daily Record)
Dec. 19, 2002 – State Trooper Robert W. Ambrose, 31, of Pearl River is killed when his Crown Victoria is hit from behind on the New York State Thruway. The family filed a lawsuit citing the car’s fuel tank placement. (AP)
March 26, 2001 – Jason Schechterle, a Phoenix police officer, is seriously burned when his Crown Victoria patrol car is hit from behind by a taxicab traveling at more than 100 mph, causing the car to burst into flames and trapping him inside. (The Arizona Republic)