By Andy Grimm
CHICAGO — Police officers across the nation love the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, and the Illinois State Police are no exception.
The cars, a souped-up version of the Crown Victoria sedan, once numbered more than 80 percent of the squad cars on the road nationwide. And even though Ford stopped making the Crown Vic in 2011, nearly two-thirds of the present state police fleet are Crown Vics.
But the expansive front seat, powerful V-8 engine and roomy trunk that make it a favorite for officers are not the design features that have concerned auto safety advocates and trial lawyers.
"For a bigger guy, wearing a gun, a Taser and a radio, with the computer on one side and the door on the other, (newer) cars get claustrophobic," said Richard Decker, who retired from the state police last year.
"For most troopers, the comfort factor is going to outweigh the safety factors. You pray you never get hit, but you know you're going to sit in that car eight hours a day."
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ford was the target of lawsuits and boycott demands from police unions — including an unsuccessful class-action case filed in 2002 on behalf of 1,500 communities in Illinois. Safety advocates claimed the position of the fuel tank on the Crown Vic, behind the rear axle rather than above or in front of the axle, made the car more likely to burst into flames when struck from behind.
Although the Crown Vic exceeds federal crash safety standards, the location of the fuel tank makes it especially dangerous for police work — which often involves pulling to the side of roadways for traffic stops, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based watchdog group.
"It's basically the same problem Ford had with the Pinto," Ditlow said.
A total of 833 Illinois State Police squad cars on the road are Crown Vics. Since the Crown Vic ended production, the state has replaced them with police-modified versions of Ford's Explorer SUV, and Chevrolet Impalas and Caprices.
But the pace of replacing Crown Vics has been slowed by an inability to hire people who can outfit cars with equipment for police work. As a result, new squad cars sit parked.
Since 2003, there have been hundreds of crashes in which troopers were hit from behind, but only two where a rear-end crash caused a vehicle to burst into flames. Both times, the car was a Crown Victoria.
Illinois State Police Trooper James Sauter was behind the wheel of a 2008 Crown Vic last year when he was struck and killed by a speeding semitrailer on a shoulder of the Tri-State Tollway near Northbrook. The forces involved might have crushed the gas tank even on a vehicle with the tank in another position, said Mark Arndt, an engineer who has testified in lawsuits against Ford.
In January, Trooper Doug Balder suffered severe burns when a trucker slammed into the rear of his 2011 Crown Vic, a crash that claimed the life of a tollway worker.
Both troopers were assigned to the tollway district, which pays for new cars with toll authority funds. The tollway has 31 squad cars on order. All told, 85 percent of the cars patrolling the tollways are Crown Vics.
The toll authority has outfitted its Crown Vics with "trunk packs," a factory-installed liner and case intended to prevent objects in the trunk from puncturing the fuel tank in a collision, but not a more costly factory-installed system designed to prevent a fire if the tank ruptures.
Ford won the 2002 class-action case at trial but settled with others. And Ford never lost the hearts of police. After the jury in the Illinois case found the cars were safe, police departments asked to be dropped from the lawsuit even as a judge weighed other issues. The reason? Ford refused to fill orders for new Crown Vics from departments that were suing them.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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