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Safer by Design

Patrol car manufacturers are working hard to help more officers walk away from crashes.

April 01, 2008  |  by Mark Kariya

Sure Footing

Another safety feature that's become standard on patrol vehicles is the anti-lock braking system (ABS). If a tire exceeds the limits of adhesion and begins to slide on the pavement, the driver has less control of the vehicle. ABS permits braking—especially in panic situations—to be as powerful as possible yet controlled. It takes a highly skilled driver to replicate the degree of pedal control that ABS computers yield as a matter of course. Just mash on the brake pedal and the car stops straight and true without the driver having to delicately modulate pedal pressure.

At the other end of the scale is loss of grip during acceleration and cornering, and Dodge alone offers a form of traction control it terms the two-stage Electronic Stability Program (ESP). In this system, a computer constantly compares the driver's intended course with the vehicle's actual course. If it detects a difference, it will apply the brakes on certain wheels as well as modulate engine power.

In practice, ESP provides an astounding increase in control, making it nearly impossible to spin out in a corner. Dodge proudly points to a NHTSA report that concluded cars equipped with a stability-control system reduced the number of single-car crashes by 35 percent and the number of fatal single-car crashes by 30 percent. (ESP can be turned off if the driver feels it necessary.)

Ford's traction-control system isn't quite as sophisticated. It limits rear-wheel spin, a boon to those trying to accelerate quickly on ice, dirt, or other low-traction surfaces.

Another safety feature common to patrol cars made by the "Big Three" is a tire-pressure monitoring system. Should a tire lose pressure and become unsafe to drive on, the system will alert the driver.

I know what you're thinking: You would know if your car's tires were getting flat. Actually, maybe not. There are times when dangerously low tire pressure may not be noticeable to your seat-of-the-pants gauge, and it's only when the tire comes apart that you may notice something is amiss. A leaking tire in a pursuit could definitely pose a safety hazard so such a notification system is another worthwhile addition.

Special Concerns

Ford is the first patrol car manufacturer to offer an optional onboard fire-suppression system in its police vehicles. The system was developed because of concerns that Crown Vics could burst into flames during significant rear-end collisions.

Ford's Crown Vic fire suppression system consists of two canisters of fire suppressant chemicals mounted just forward and above the fuel tank. If the car is struck in the rear, the suppression system activates immediately after the car comes to rest. Upon activation, the system is pressurized, and the fire suppresant chemicals are dispensed through nozzles. The system has been tested at rear-end collision speeds of 75 mph.

Of course, while patrol vehicle fire is a concern for law enforcement officers, taking fire in or around their patrol vehicles is a greater concern. Cops have long been taught to use their car doors as cover in a gun fight, but the truth is that the average patrol car door offers little ballistic protection.

Which is why there are now ballistic protective packages available through the aftermarket for any patrol car. Some even offer NIJ Level IV protection.

And it's why Ford is offering ballistic front-door panels as an option from the dealer on all Crown Vic patrol cars. Ford's ballistic door panels are lightweight, fit the doors without any structural modifications, and offer NIJ Level III protection. They cost $1,200 per door. Which may seem like a lot, unless you're pinned down behind that door trying to use it as a shield.

When it comes to maintaining situational awareness, being able to see all around is a key component. All three of the main players in the patrol car market offer good visibility, though there are still a few blind spots. Enlarging the windows is one way to minimize blind spots, though that would entail a redesign of the vehicle. A simpler solution is simply to grace the car with larger mirrors and/or wider angle mirrors.

Since police vehicles may be subject to demanding high-speed operation more akin to race cars at times, they also come fitted with heavier-duty suspension, tires and brakes to cope with the added stresses safely.

As it stands, today's police patrol vehicles certainly benefit from advances born in the civilian marketplace to enhance the driver's safety. They aren't perfect, but they offer security unknown just a decade ago and will continue to be refined as new advances come online. When combined with vigilance and continued operational training, there's no reason that the number of police fatalities in traffic accidents can't mimic the downward trend of the civilian driving population.

Mark Kariya is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who reviews automobiles, motorcycles, and bicycles.

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Comments (1)

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Jaypugliese @ 4/29/2008 1:14 PM

The fact that manufacturers can not make not do much about officers wearing a seat belt is untrue. Ford, in particular, can change the positioning of the seat belt latch so it does not come up through the seat. A good number of officers are right handed and their gun sits over the top of the seat belt latch. In order to wear a seat belt in a Crown Vic, officers have to move slightly to the left which makes them sit at an angle. Changing the position of the latch and extending the attachment hardware will make wearing a seat belt more comfortable. If a seat belt is more comfortable to wear, more officers will wear one.

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