Ford Motor Company is in trouble with the US police. It's not a matter of traffic tickets: it's a problem with the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, writes Bill Cawthon.

Police agencies in Arizona are blaming Ford for the deaths of three officers due to what they call a design flaw in the Crown Vic's fuel tank. Two Arizona highway patrolmen and a Phoenix police officer have died in fires blamed on ruptured fuel tanks.

The accidents all occurred when a Crown Victoria was stopped on the roadside and struck from behind by a vehicle traveling at high speed. The Crown Vic's fuel tank design is blamed for the deaths of 11 American police officers over the last 20 years.

The vast majority of American police cars are Crown Victorias and Ford has repeatedly denied there is a problem. However, the company has settled lawsuits with some of the families of officers killed and issued some dealer advisories intended to reduce the risk of fuel tank punctures.

Arizona has now upped the ante in the ongoing dispute. Governor Jane Hull has ordered the Arizona Department of Public Safety to halt purchases of new Crown Victorias. The Phoenix city council's subcommittee on public safety has voted to recommend retro-fitting many of the city's current fleet of 735 Ford police cars with petrol tank bladders to reduce the potential for future incidents.

The full city council will vote on the recommendation on 3 July.

The city has also told Ford that bladders must be offered as an option or the city will freeze its order for 200 new Crown Victorias and look for an alternative.
Other Arizona cities are also considering actions against Ford and the state has asked the National Highway and Traffic Safety Institute to investigate.

Ford maintains it is trying to work with the agencies, saying it is taking the issue very seriously.

Ford's 'police cruiser' problems could be a blessing for General Motors and DaimlerChrysler. GM had high hopes for its new Chevrolet Impala police package but, after two years in production the Impala has still not achieved the desired share of the 50,000 unit-per-year police market.

DaimlerChrysler, which returned to the police market in 2002 with a specially equipped Dodge Intrepid, is looking for its first major fleet sale.

The Impala and Intrepid are smaller than the V8-powered, rear-drive Crown Victoria and are front-wheel drive cars with six-cylinder engines. Both performed acceptably in the influential Michigan state police tests and are more economical to operate.

But the Impala and Intrepid are up against the traditional American preference for big, rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered sedans for law enforcement use.

Tennessee, for example, says the Impala and Intrepid are acceptable but lists them as alternatives to the Crown Victoria.

It has been reported that GM considered importing the Australian Holden Commodore, a V8-powered sedan, as a replacement for the police-specification Impala.

However, a number of problems, including EPA compliance issues and resistance from American labour unions - and a preference by local authorities to 'buy American - may have put a hold on such plans.

DaimlerChrysler will have a new rear-wheel-drive sedan in 2004; there is no word yet as to whether it will be offered at a price within police budget range.