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OK Police Intends to Keep Ford: 'Car of Choice'


January 06, 2003
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OK Police Intends to Keep Ford: 'Car of Choice'

By Penny Owen, The Oklahoman

While police departments elsewhere have stopped driving Crown Victorias and at least one has sued Ford Motor Co. over safety concerns, Oklahoma police and sheriffs not only intend to keep their police "car of choice" rolling, they intend to buy more.

Ford's Crown Victoria has been criticized for what some say is a design flaw that causes the gasoline tank to explode when a high-speed rear-end collision occurs. Thirteen officers have died in rear-end collisions since 1983, including a Dallas officer in October and a New York officer in December.

Dallas officials filed a lawsuit last month against Ford Motor Co., demanding more information about safety improvements on the police vehicle.

Ford officials, however, contend they cannot predict or prevent damage done by extremely high-speed crashes, such as the fatal one in Dallas. The estimated speed in that crash was 85 to 90 mph.

The company has opted for a nationwide recall on about 350,000 police-issued Crown Victorias and is installing protective shields around gasoline tanks.

In Oklahoma, Ford has little to worry about. Law enforcement leaders say the Crown Victoria is as safe as any other police vehicle. And as thousands of Crown Victorias patrol Oklahoma's urban and rural streets, officers say some of the cars have been hit in the rear without fatal consequences.

"The last car that caught fire wasn't even a Ford, it was a Chevy Camaro," said Lt. Chris West, spokesman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, which has about 900 Crown Victorias in its fleet.

West, like other Oklahoma law enforcement leaders, has his doubts about flaws in the Crown Victoria.

"Any department that's going to operate with large fleets like we do is going to have crashes, and some of them are going to burn. And who knows what's going to cause them to burn," he said.

Oklahoma City police Lt. Jeff Pierce said that the rear-end collisions resulting in explosions were at speeds well above the legal limit. In Dallas, officer Patrick Metzler died in a fire when a suspected drunken driver rear-ended his Crown Victoria while traveling more than 80 mph.

"Those kinds of speeds, I don't care if you're in a Volvo, you run a risk of rupturing a gas tank," Pierce said.

Some departments, such as the New York State Police, have stopped driving Crown Victorias until all are retrofitted with the protective shield. Many of Oklahoma's departments already have had their cars retrofitted.

"When you have a problem and you fix it, that's about all you can do. We have taken all the safety precautions Ford recommends to prevent the problem," said Tulsa County's chief sheriff's deputy Jim Helm, whose department has about 150 Crown Victorias.

Some have even questioned the necessity of a recall.

"For everyone who claims it's a safety hazard, you can find someone who says it's not," Pierce said.

Oklahomans also are reluctant to give up the Crown Victorias because they are the only "police package" car made with a rear-wheel drive. In this part of the country, a rear-wheel drive police car means much lower maintenance costs, Pierce said.

In short, Crown Victorias are a favorite among Oklahoma law enforcement, and the recent controversy won't likely change that.

"It's almost a source of irritation because we believe in that car," said Larry Medina, executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association.

"We're talking about a limited number of deaths in a wide range of use," Medina said. "From an association standpoint, the sheriffs really feel the Crown Victoria has not gotten a fair hearing."

Fair or not, some departments are showing their support in a bottom-line sort of way -- with their pocketbook.

"I think we've got an order of Fords out, and we're waiting for delivery," said West, of the highway patrol. "We're still buying them."



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