ANNAPOLIS – A 26-year-old Prince George’s County Police officer killed in 1994 helped ignite a probe into the allegedly fire-prone Ford Crown Victoria police car that prompted the company to offer safety upgrades.
Eight years later, 16 officers have died, a lawsuit has been filed, Ford has recommended a fuel-tank repair for the vehicles, and still critics charge the vehicles — in wide use by police forces nationwide — are unsafe.
Prince George’s Police Cpl. John Bagileo’s 1993 Crown Victoria was engulfed in flame on Feb. 28, 1994, after his patrol car barreled into a utility pole while responding to call, according to published reports at the time.
But it wasn’t until Oct. 22, 2001, that Ford Motor Co. released a technical service bulletin that revealed possible fuel tank punctures and fire after the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is hit from behind, sparking the nationwide upgrades that entail installing a plastic shield around the gas tank.
A Capital News Service analysis shows that most Maryland police agencies have completed or are nearing completion of repairs to the Ford police interceptors — and are satisfied the upgrades will protect their officers — but some experts say police and citizens may still be in danger from the vehicles.
“It’s the public at risk,” said Byron Bloch, an auto safety expert and consultant from Potomac. “It’s basically a time bomb . . . . And, plastic shields are a piecemeal upgrade that helps only in a limited way — it was an economic fix.”
Not only are the upgrades insufficient, the CVPI is an unsafe vehicle, said Bloch.
“You are putting a vehicle out there that is known as a high-speed police car, and (officers) are entitled to the best safety,” Bloch said.
The problem with the car is fuel tank placement, said Bloch, who has tracked Ford’s full-size car since 1965. He has watched it morph from the Galaxy 500 to the LTD in the 1970s before becoming the Crown Victoria in the 1980s.
The tank, known as a “vertical behind-axle fuel tank,” is positioned incorrectly between the axle and the vehicle’s deep trunk in all three models, Bloch said.
“Imagine the trunk as a foot locker and in front of that is the tank, and it’s not a flat tank. Most cars now have the tank forward of the axle — it’s where you put your feet if you are sitting in the back seat.”
When the car is hit from behind, the rear crumples forward, crushing the trunk, then the tank, allowing parts around the tank to puncture it — a process the shields are intended to prevent.
Explosions from high-speed, rear-end collisions with the police cruiser have killed 16 officers nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ford estimates that there are about 350,000 CVPIs patrolling the roads.
While Bagileo’s crash doesn’t perfectly fit that crash profile, the fuel system was blamed for the fiery wreck and it is included in databases of Ford police interceptor crash problems.
In Maryland, the State Police completed fuel-tank safety shield upgrades on its fleet of nearly 1,600 cars in March. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City expect to complete upgrades within two weeks to six months.
“It’s very inconvenient but it doesn’t take a long time,” said Susan D. Subadan, division chief of fleet management services for Montgomery County. “We don’t see this as a clear and present danger.”
Despite concerns with the vehicle’s safety, Subadan said they are pleased with Ford and plan to reorder the CVPI this year.
“The decision was made, given its practicality and their responsiveness and the low incident rate,” she said. “Given the percentage of CVPIs out there and the number of crashes, that number is relatively low. But if it occurred in your jurisdiction, it doesn’t matter how low the percentage is.”
That’s what happened after a Phoenix police officer was severely burned in a March 2001 crash. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association convinced the city that the CVPI was a problem vehicle. Phoenix canceled its contract with Ford, and got in touch with the National Association of Police Organizations, said NAPO Executive Director Bill Johnson.
Ford responded with a nine-member blue-ribbon panel made up of company and police officials appointed by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was attorney general at the time.
From its recommendations, Ford in October 2002 began offering an upgrade kit and an optional trunk package through dealers at no charge only “to owners of certain 1992 through 2003 model year CVPI vehicles currently in law enforcement duty.”
The company also instructed that the upgrades be completed by that November.
Providing the kits for free was a sign of Ford’s commitment to police organizations, a company spokeswoman said.
“They came up with this to make a safe vehicle safer,” said Kathleen Vokes. “We meet or exceed any standards.”
Ford had issued an earlier service bulletin in 2001 to “provide service parts and a service procedure to further reduce the unlikely possibility of a fuel tank puncture during an extremely high-speed rear impact” for the 1992-2001 Crown Victoria.
After reviewing the bulletin and consumer complaints, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation opened a nearly yearlong probe of the CVPI. The investigation ended in October without finding a design flaw.
“The purpose of the report is to see if a safety recall is needed,” said NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd. “We don’t believe that doing any more work would find a reason to continue the investigation.”
However, not everyone agreed the case should be closed.
“Our belief is that Ford has modifications that they can make to the vehicles,” said NAPO’s Johnson. “Until recently they have offered some shields, but that in itself will not be a cure.”
NAPO, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group representing about 1,000 police unions nationwide, filed suit Jan. 29 in New York to require Ford to improve safety modifications for fuel systems in the CVPI.
“The message that we are trying to send is, ‘Look, let’s be on the same side,’ ” Johnson said. “Both our organizations want to have the safest possible vehicle on the road. And what we want to do is get Ford to disclose and provide all the available remedies to their vehicles.”
Ford denies the fuel tank placement is an issue. Instead, fuel-fired fatalities result from negligent drivers, Vokes said.
“People assume that a different (tank) placement will have a different impact,” she said. “It’s absolutely not Ford’s fault. It’s drivers who have been speeding who have rammed into the back of police vehicles . . . No matter what personal-injury lawyers claim, it’s a safe vehicle and has the statistics to back that up, and the data does not change.”
Bloch said Ford knew about the problem for years.
“This is not a sudden surprise for Ford,” he said. “They carried over an old, old design that is fraught with problems . . . and are blaming freak high- speed accidents. But, if they flipped the fuel tank with the muffler all of these officers would be alive.”
The plastic shield upgrade prevents the tank from being punctured, but not from being crushed, Bloch said. A better remedy, he said, would be a fuel cell bladder, a tough flexible skin that lines the tank and is used in military helicopters and racecars, and does not leak fuel.
“If it’s good enough for the NASCAR races . . . and it protects those drivers . . . shouldn’t police officers have similar protection?” he asked.
Ford’s Vokes said shielding is what consumers have requested.
“You always try and meet your customer’s wishes,” she said.
One auto safety organization said Ford could do more.
“The shields themselves are not going to prevent all fire deaths . . . and one officer’s life lost is too many,” said Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “Until you put in a bladder and panel they will continue to burn.”