The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration yesterday ended a 10-month probe into Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers without finding a defect responsible for a handful of highly publicised petrol tank fires, the Detroit News reported.

The newspaper said the decision was not a “blanket exoneration” of the ‘Crown Vic but could at least blunt the controversy surrounding America’s most popular police car.

Ford recently said it would pay to modify 350,000 police cruisers already in use with petrol tank shields and a device to stop boot contents puncturing the fuel tank but safety campaigners immediately said that was not enough.

At issue is the big cruiser’s location of the petrol tank within the separate chassis frame.

Over the last 10 years, 12 officers have been killed when a Crown Victoria petrol tank ruptured and the contents caught fire, often after the cruiser was hit in the rear in a high-speed crash, the Detroit News noted.

The newspaper said the NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation, however, determined the Crown Victoria police car exceeds federal standards for fuel system safety and found the rate of fires was no greater than with Chevrolet Caprice police cars, which GM dropped after 1996.

The Detroit News cited Ford safety chief Sue Cischke as saying: “This closure confirms our own analysis of the Crown Victoria’s performance during rear impacts. The [cruiser] has a strong overall record for safety, including the Police Interceptor, which faces higher risks due to the nature of police work.”

The fact that police cruisers are more prone to rear-end crashes because they’re often parked at the side of busy city streets or alongside high-speed motorways – one of the riskiest places to stop a vehicle – cuts no ice with the safety lobby, however.

“This decision is going to mean more deaths on the highways,” vehicle safety campaigner Clarence Ditlow said, according to the Detroit News.

The newspaper said Ditlow added: “It’s a NHTSA attempt to whitewash the situation for Ford. This does not absolve Ford. NHTSA may be saving Ford $US200 million in recalls but it will inevitably cost them more in punitive damages.”

The Detroit News said that, in Texas, Ford faces a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the state’s cities and counties seeking a recall. Similar efforts are under way in Ohio and elsewhere, along with a number of individual product liability suits against Ford.

According to the Detroit News, the NHTSA said the Crown Victoria meets federal standards that require a vehicle to withstand a rear-end crash at 30 mph without leaking fuel. The agency noted the car did not leak fuel during a test at 50 mph conducted by Ford.