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Ford owners not told of ways to reduce fuel-tank fire risk

By James Polk and Susan Candiotti

The sisters' rented limousine burst into flames when it was hit from behind in North Carolina.


Ford Motor Company
North Carolina
Road Accidents
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

MOCKSVILLE, North Carolina (CNN) -- The parents of three sisters burned to death in a rear-end crash are asking Ford Motor Co. to install the same gas tank protective devices in regular models as it did for its police cars.

Tara Parker, 29, Mysti Poplin, 24, and Megan Howell, 16, died two years ago inside a Lincoln Town Car limousine that burst into flames after it was caught in a traffic jam and hit from behind by a speeding pick-up truck in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Ford settled out-of-court with the families last week, days before their lawsuit was to be heard. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

In 2002, after a dozen police officers had died in fiery rear-end crashes over a decade's time, Ford created rubber and plastic shields to cover sharp parts around the fuel tank of the Crown Victoria police car to help prevent punctures and fires.

Ford has three civilian models - the regular Crown Victoria, the Town Car, and the Mercury Grand Marquis - that have the gas tank in the same location, sticking up in the trunk area. These are the only American automobiles still made with the tank behind the rear axle.

At the time Ford announced the introduction of the shields -- now standard equipment on police cars -- its top safety official said civilian drivers do not need them because they do not use their cars like police officers, who often stop alongside high-speed expressways, exposed to onrushing traffic.

Ricky Howell said that when his daughters died their car was "sitting still, just like a patrol car, sitting in traffic."

Ford engineers found the limousine's fuel tank had been pierced by a bolt that would have been protected by the shields on police cars.

In September, Ford notified limousine makers it now would provide the shields free for Lincoln Town Cars turned into stretch limousines.

Howell and his wife, Brenda, said after the settlement, "We know shields have been tested and shown to work in crashes of up to 100 miles an hour." They said the shields should be available in all three of the Ford-made models that have the same tank position and added, "It should not take more deaths to make this happen."

Autopsy reports showed two of the sisters were unhurt by the impact. The third, Parker, did suffer some internal injuries. But the cause of death for each was listed as burns and smoke inhalation.

Parker, the oldest sister, was a heart transplant survivor. She and her husband had recently adopted a baby son. Poplin was also a new mother. Howell, the youngest, was a high school honor student and cheerleader.

Parker had rented the limousine as a surprise to take her two half-sisters to a Fleetwood Mac concert on the night of September 10, 2003. They had just pulled onto an interstate highway, leaving the concert, when the limo was rammed from behind.

Limousine driver James Canady told CNN, "I saw flames shooting past the window and I said, 'Oh my God, we're on fire.' "

He kicked his door open and escaped, but he could not reach the sisters trapped in the back. "I heard one of the ladies scream, 'Oh my God!' And that was all I heard, and that was it," Canady said.

Ford has blamed the North Carolina deaths on the driver of the pick-up. He was drunk and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The driver was sentenced to almost five years in prison.

Last October, in a deposition that was part of the North Carolina lawsuit, Ford's safety vice president, Susan Cischke, said this about the shields: "When I made the decision to put them on limos, nothing else had changed my thinking regarding the civilian population so that was not recommended."

While Ford has never mailed anything to car owners about the shields, motorists can go to dealers to ask for them to be installed at their own expense. This covers every model year for the three regular car types going back as far as 1992.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is watching the matter, a spokesman said, but has no plans to begin any investigation. He said this is considered a consumer issue between the car owner and the manufacturer.

Ford says all its cars are safe and are required to pass rear-end crash tests at 50 mph, the highest standard in the industry. All of the known fatal fires and crashes in these models, both police and civilian, have happened at 60 mph or faster.

Ford's police cars, now with the shields, have passed crash tests at even greater speeds. Since the shields were made available to the police more than three years ago, there was not been a single patrol-car death in a fire blamed on the puncture of a gas tank.

At the same time Ford came up with the shields, it offered police the option of buying a reinforced storage pack for items in the trunk to keep them from piercing the tank in rear-end crashes.

Last April, in Wood River, Illinois, a jury awarded a woman $43.7 million in damages after her husband died when the force of a rear-end crash pushed a wrench through the tank of their Town Car sedan. She was badly burned in the fire.

The jury foreman, Edward Friedel, said Ford should have given civilian drivers the opportunity to buy the same storage pack.

In deliberations, Friedel said, "One juror just blurted out, 'Does anybody feel that Ford did something wrong?' and that's when, unanimously, everybody said yes, they withheld the truth."

Ford is appealing the verdict, arguing it did not get a fair trial.

Ford says all makes and models can have fires in collisions, not just their own. What safety critics say is significant, though, is that Ford has found an answer for this particular problem and has not shared it with most of the public.

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