Ford Motor Co. is under mounting pressure to recall hundreds of thousands of Crown Victoria police cruisers amid reports of rear-collision gas tank fires in which at least 10 police officers allegedly have burned to death since 1992.
Ford, the dominant producer of police cars, faces what amounts to a boycott in Arizona, where emotions reached the boiling point earlier this month with the fiery death of a policeman in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler.
Robert Nielsen, 25, became the third Arizona officer to die in fewer than four years when the fuel tank of his Crown Victoria burst into flames after a crash.
Nielsen's death "was the final straw," said Detective Tony Morales of the Phoenix Police Department, which immediately suspended an order for 200 new Crown Victoria cruisers. Rather than wait for Ford to act, Phoenix also plans to install new, and purportedly safer, fuel systems in the 735 Crown Victorias in its fleet. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull has decreed that the state highway patrol will not place new orders with Ford until the issue is resolved.
On Tuesday, Arizona Atty. Gen. Janet Napolitano is scheduled to meet with top safety officials at Ford in Detroit. In a blistering letter in March to Ford chairman William Clay Ford Jr., Napolitano said that the company's failure to take "affirmative action is highly disturbing."
Ford also faces a class action suit in New Jersey that demands the company reimburse police departments for safety modifications.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began its investigation in November after receiving a copy of an internal Ford memo stating that the agency had agreed not to investigate.
Ford officials say the cruisers have a great safety record, and that their fuel systems meet the federal government's minimum standard, as well as the company's tougher internal guidelines. According to Ford, the tank fires are so rare and involve such violent collisions typically, 70 mph or more that they do not reflect a design problem.
The Crown Victoria "is one of the safest vehicles you can be in," and, "There are no safety issues with the fuel system," said Sara Tatchio, a spokeswoman for Ford.