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Ford Accused of Violating Laws

Safety: Consumer group says the company did not tell the owners of Crown Victoria-type cars about a recommended fix.


A consumer group Monday accused Ford Motor Co. of violating "secret warranty" laws in California and three other states by failing to tell owners of Crown Victorias and similar cars about a program to reduce the risk of fires from gas tank ruptures.

In letters to California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and his counterparts in Connecticut, Virginia and Wisconsin, the Center for Auto Safety said Ford had broken their laws by telling repair shops about a recommended fix but keeping owners of the cars in the dark.

It was unclear whether the states will take action. Aides to Lockyer and Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal said they had not seen the letters and could not comment.

But Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based center, said he hopes the latest salvo will increase pressure on Ford to issue a nationwide recall--not only of the Crown Victoria police cruisers that have been in the news, but of civilian models that also have fuel tanks behind their rear axles, which critics say makes them unusually vulnerable to rear-collision fires.

There are about 3 million "Panther" platform cars--the Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Marquis--on the road, including 400,000 police cruisers.

Sara Tatchio, a Ford spokeswoman, said the center had misinterpreted the state laws. Ford is in compliance, "and there was no intention of hiding anything," she said. The company has maintained that the cars are safe and that the gas tank fires have been extremely rare, the result of high-speed collisions that no fuel system would be likely to withstand.

In the last 10 years, there have been reports of at least a dozen police officer deaths in fiery wrecks involving the popular Crown Victoria police cruisers. Using court and medical records and a government database of accidents, the Center for Auto Safety said it had identified about 30 fatal wrecks since 1992, mostly involving civilians, in which occupants of the cars appeared to survive a crash but died in the ensuing fire.

The letters Monday focused on a "technical service bulletin" that Ford sent to repair shops in October, advising that the risk of tank punctures in 1992-2001 Panther platform cars could be reduced by grinding down a metal tab and replacing a protruding bolt that could be pushed into the tank in an accident.

Ford said the work was recommended only for Crown Victoria police cruisers, which are frequently exposed to high-speed rear collisions during traffic stops. But the service bulletin said all owners of Panther platform cars could have the work done free of charge if their cars were under warranty.

The auto safety group said Ford violated the law by not informing the owners. The letters quoted from state laws requiring manufacturers to inform owners within 90 days of any offer to repair "any condition that may substantially affect vehicle durability, reliability or performance."

The letters called on Lockyer and his counterparts "to require Ford to comply" by notifying owners of model year 1998 through 2001 cars that are still under warranty.

The "secret warranty" laws grew out of a campaign by the center in the early '90s that helped get the laws on the books in the four states. Ditlow said they were a response to numerous cases in which vehicles weren't recalled, but manufacturers told repair shops "they would fix something for free, but they wouldn't tell consumers."

Ford's view is that the laws don't cover technical service bulletins, which frequently are issued without consumers being notified, Tatchio said. "We do not believe their interpretation is anywhere near correct. They've twisted the facts to fit their argument."

The Crown Victoria flap, which had been simmering for about three years, rose to a boil last month with the fiery death of a police officer in Chandler, Ariz. Robert Nielsen, 25, became the third Arizona officer to die in less than four years when the fuel tank of his Crown Victoria erupted in flames after a crash.

Class-action suits have been filed against Ford in Arkansas, Texas and New Jersey, seeking a recall of all Crown Victoria police cruisers.

At the insistence of Arizona Atty. Gen. Janet Napolitano, Ford has launched a pair of task forces to investigate the safety of the fuel system and possible changes in police procedures that may lower the risk of rear-collision fires.

A safety investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is continuing.

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