Ford Motor Co. agreed Tuesday to launch crash tests to determine whether it can improve the safety of its Crown Victoria police cruisers, which have been linked to the deaths of at least 10 police officers nationwide in the past two decades, including an officer in Arizona earlier this month.
The decision came after a meeting between Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano and Ford executives at the automaker's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. It immediately prompted criticism from highway safety advocates who are calling for a recall of the vehicle.
At issue is the Crown Victoria's gas tank, located behind the rear axle. In many of the fatalities, the tank ruptured when the patrol car was rear-ended at high speed, igniting a deadly fire. In Arizona, three officers have burned to death in their cars in gas-tank-related crashes, including officer Robert Nielsen earlier this month.
Earlier Arizona incidents prompted Ford to issue service bulletins in October to its repair shops warning of possible fuel-tank leaks in high-speed crashes and suggesting modifications to reduce the risk.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating the cars in November.
Ford denies any defect in the Crown Victoria. On Tuesday, however, it agreed to test various crash scenarios.
"We're going to do that with a sense of urgency," said spokeswoman Sara Tatchio.
Ford agreed to test Crown Victoria models modified with a shield protecting the gas tank or after loading the vehicle with police gear, Tatchio said.
Even though Ford has crash-tested the cars at high speeds in the past, it has never modified them to take into account unique factors of police work.
A technical task force of military, auto-racing and aviation experts as well as Ford engineers will oversee the tests. The first phase of testing should be completed in 30 to 60 days.
A separate nine-member task force will work to recommend best practices, such as ways to improve a patrol car's visibility or the safest ways to use police cars as barriers at accident scenes.
Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety dismissed Ford's efforts. "The task force only delays the inevitable, which is a recall," he said.
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