As the Hollywood Police Department and local media probe to find out what caused a Hollywood squad car to engulf in flames, killing an officer Saturday night, it’s surprising that more emphasis has not been placed on the make of the squad car Alex Del Rio was driving that night; the Crown Victoria.
In fact, the first question that popped in my mind after I heard the news was whether or not the officer was driving a Crown Victoria, one of the most widely used models for squad cars in police departments throughout the country.
And one of the most dangerous cars ever introduced in this country, prone to fires and explosions after rear-end collisions.
When I was a police reporter in Phoenix for The Arizona Republic, one of the biggest stories we ever worked on was the story of Jason Schechterle, pictured right, a Phoenix police officer who survived one such explosion but suffered fourth-degree burns in the process in 2001, forever altering his appearance and life.
A year later, it was another Phoenix-area police officer involved in a Crown Victoria fire after his squad car was struck from behind. But this time, the incident killed Chandler Police Officer Robert Nielson.
And in 1998, it was Arizona State Trooper Juan Cruz who was killed after his Crown Victoria ended up engulfed in flames.
At least 21 officers throughout the country have been killed in such incidents since the Ford Motor Company introduced the Crown Victoria in 1978, according to this timeline, including two South Florida officers in 1997.
The problem lies in the design of the vehicle. Unlike most cars, the gas tank is not protected by the rear axle, so in a high impact rear collision, the gas tank ruptures. The gas then comes in contact with sparks created by the impact, which then causes the car to engulf in flames within seconds.
Following the criticism of fires following rear-end collisions, 2005 and later model Police Interceptors now come with an optional automatic fire suppression system and special “trunk packs” designed to help prevent trunk contents from piercing the fuel tank in a collision. Each agency must pay an additional $150 for the trunk packs. For a more detailed discussion of the fuel tank leakage concerns that prompted these changes, see Ford Crown Victoria.
However, Texas deputy Bill Wilson’s Crown Victoria was also equipped with this shield, but his car engulfed in flames anyway when it was struck from behind, severely burning the deputy in 2005.
And in 2006, this shield did not prevent two Ohio highway patrol troopers and a civilian from dying in a fiery collision when the civilian’s pickup rammed into the troopers’ Crown Victoria.
So shield or no shield, the real question is, why are police departments still using the Crown Victoria?