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Ford's 2020 Explorer for police has hidden lifesaving design feature

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 5 days ago Phoebe Wall Howard
a blue motorcycle parked on the side of a road© Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Mike Shaw has been nearly hit by speeding vehicles four times, twice while outside his car. 

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“And four times is actually low. I know a trooper who has been hit more than 10 times,” Shaw said. “You can probably talk to any state trooper. It’s not a matter of if, but when. People just aren’t paying attention out there, and sometimes they’re impaired with alcohol or marijuana or even their cellphones. Maybe they’re just gawking. And our troopers are getting hit.”

Police say that officers being maimed or killed while investigating accidents or conducting traffic stops is a rising danger. Sometimes, drivers strike a parked police vehicle, pushing it toward officers working on the roadway. Other times, officers are still inside their cars when they are struck.

"I actually climbed over a median wall. You get used to it," said Shaw, 54, who has been a Michigan trooper for 24 years. "We’re trained to pay attention to what’s going on around you. You have one eye on the crash site and the other on what’s driving toward you.”

More on the Ford Explorer:2020 Ford Explorer ST and Hybrid First Look: Welcome to the Family

Ford Motor Co., which supplies 65 percent of U.S. police vehicles, has responded to the growing concern by redesigning the body of the 2020 Explorer-based Police Interceptor Utility with 160 pounds of extra steel, creating a new protective frame.

Related video: First Look: The 2020 Ford Explorer - Provided by MotorTrend

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And while all vehicles on the road must meet a federal impact safety standard of 50 mph, the Police Interceptor is the only SUV in the world that claims to provide rear-impact protection for cops at up to 75 mph, based on testing at Ford's crash barrier facility in Dearborn.

“Officers are medically retired” because of being struck, Shaw said. “Officers have been killed in cars that are totaled or pinned between vehicles. When we’re looking at line-of-duty deaths, the majority aren’t gunfire-related, they are traffic crash-related.”

More: Michigan State Police trooper hospitalized after cruiser struck by vehicle

More: Ford police SUV hits 150 mph to become fastest cop car

a man talking on a cell phone: Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw talks with reporters outside of the 22nd District Court on Thursday, July 3, 2014.© Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw talks with reporters outside of the 22nd District Court on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

One high-profile incident in July 2016 involved a Michigan State Police officer who responded to a car in a ditch on I-696 near the Lodge Freeway in Southfield. The trooper ended up with broken ribs and a broken leg after a van hit the trooper's SUV with him inside. 

"We experience numerous rear-end collisions annually, often resulting in serious injuries and, over the past 10 years, two officer fatalities," said Massachusetts State Police Lt. Karl Brenner.

Colorado state troopers were killed in 2015 and '16 while outside their cars at accident scenes. Another was thrown down an embankment during a traffic stop in 2017 and the driver who had been stopped was killed.

Every state in America now has some form of a "Move Over" law. Michigan's requires drivers to move over one lane upon seeing a stationary emergency vehicle with flashing lights. If drivers can't switch lanes, they must slow to 10 miles below the posted speed limit or face a $400 fine. Shaw noted that Michigan law now applies to road maintenance trucks, garbage trucks, tow trucks and utility trucks with flashing lights. 

Just making an effort to better pay attention is essential, Shaw emphasized. "It could save a life."

Steel cage of protection

Ford has affixed a steel X-shaped metal brace to the floor of the police SUV since its first launch in 2013, but the 2020 design also includes a ladder-like steel safety frame that's bigger and stronger than anything used before.

“These pieces together are primary bracing we use to handle the absorption for the 75-mile per hour rear impact,” said Bill Gubing, Ford's lead engineer on the vehicle. "Those are high-strength steel tubes. We put a layer of reinforcement between the floor pan and the seating surfaces. It holds both sides of the car together, so it can’t break apart. The structure stays intact and strong, allowing less crush. It takes all of the energy from the object hitting the back of the police car and disperses it throughout the entire structure.”

The steel “X” transfers energy to both sides of the Explorer-based Interceptor.

Ford has affixed a giant steel X-shaped metal brace to the floor of the Police Interceptor Utility since its first launch in 2013; but the 2020 design also includes a ladder-like steel safety frame that's bigger than anything used before, and stronger.© Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press Ford has affixed a giant steel X-shaped metal brace to the floor of the Police Interceptor Utility since its first launch in 2013; but the 2020 design also includes a ladder-like steel safety frame that's bigger than anything used before, and stronger.

Current technology also protects the fuel tank and the hybrid battery, Gubing noted. “We’re the only ones in the industry with this rear certification and bracing. This increases the chance of officer survival.”

Vehicles in Ford's Police Responder series, which includes the Fusion and F-Series pickups, are tested to meet regular federal safety standards. But the Police Interceptor Utility has consistently exceeded rear-impact crash test standards. 

The Dearborn-based carmaker has received more than 3,000 orders for the new Interceptor, which is scheduled to start delivery this summer.

Engineers at Ford work with current and former law enforcement officers on design. One member of the program management team is former FBI. And Ford has sent engineers on intense ride-alongs.

In addition, police point out tiny details that might beoverlooked.

“We were talking about door hinges and strength of our doors and the officers were saying we didn’t understand how they closed the door,” Gubing said. “We’re looking at them and thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ A Michigan State Police officer brought back a bulletproof vest. Now, he said, ‘Put this on, buckle your seat belt and reach for the door.’ You can’t bend with the vests on. So you can’t reach the door handle. So they were using their foot to apply pressure and bounce back the door to close it.”

That needed to be fixed. But that wasn’t all.

“We had vehicles in the showroom and one of the guys hit the trunk release and the trunk opened. He gets out and says, ‘This is no good.’ I’m thinking, ‘What’s he talking about?’ But the key wasn’t in the car. That meant the trunk switch was active all the time, so someone could break a window on a car, hit the trunk and access all the guns. We had to change the design so it only worked when the ignition is on.”

Gubing noted, “There’s a huge mindset difference in officers. It’s why we have a police advisory board and why we do human-centered engineering.”

Mangled car at Mrs. Doubtfire's 

San Francisco Police Capt. David Lazar reached out to Ford to thank the company for surviving a hit by a car from behind that was airborne, estimated to be traveling at 74 mph.

“After impact, he opened the door, got out, drew his weapon and apprehended the suspect,” said Ford spokesman Mike Levine. “He walked away with only an injured rib — he and his wife were very grateful.”

The officer, who was back on the job in just four days, even sent Ford images of his mangled Police Interceptor after the accident.

Lazar, 48, now a police commander, told the Free Press he was driving along an empty Broadway Avenue between Fillmore and Steiner streets in the Pacific Heights neighborhood at 10 p.m. on Columbus Day 2016 when a Honda CRV ran a red light and crashed into his Police Interceptor Taurus.

"The left front of that vehicle contacted the right rear of my vehicle," Lazar recalled. "The Ford I was driving had the safety features that prevented me from being injured or killed. If you saw the vehicle, you would've thought someone died. I was hit, spun out, hit a whole series of parked cars, went head-on into more parked cars on the hills of San Francisco. I don't want to underestimate this. Debris took up half a block and landed in front of the Mrs. Doubtfire house."

That site gets visitors from around the world who loved the 1993 film "Mrs. Doubtfire" featuring Robin Williams, which was shot in San Francisco. 

Incredibly, that crash video — captured by a bus driving in front of the San Francisco officer — is now used for law enforcement training.

"Officers are losing lives every year to motor vehicle collisions, and I'm seeing agencies moving toward SUVs — including our own," Lazar said. "We have both Tauruses and Explorers. Those impact bars in the car prevent it from completely crumbling."

He noted that the driver who hit him was under the influence of alcohol, most likely on drugs "and my first reaction was the collision was intentional. I could not see his hands and he was uncooperative. This is why I drew my weapon."

A coma at 28

Gubing has worked at Ford for eight years developing safer police vehicles.

“There’s a tremendous amount of engineering involved with the design of the structure and the design of the reinforcements,” he said. “In the case of the police car, after the crash structure is added, there’s no longer room for a third-row seat. We add about 160 pounds of high-strength steel tubing.”

Gubing told of receiving crash photos with thank you letters from police.

“They put their lives on the line for us, and we’re out there engineering a product that helps save their lives,” he said. “It’s a powerful emotion that motivates our engineers.”

Jason Schechterle survived horrific fire as a Phoenix police officer after his Ford Crown Victoria was hit from behind with him in it. The vehicle, which is no longer built, illustrated a need for changes.

Though he sued Ford over fuel safety design after his accident on March 26, 2001, Schechterle praised the company for the latest design changes.

“It makes me very happy to hear they’ve gone above and beyond the government requirement,” he said. “In the span of four years, we lost three officers and I had my accident. I was hit at a high rate of speed, higher than most, and ended up with burns on 43 percent of my body — neck, face, head. It was disfiguring. I spent a long time in a coma, in the hospital and had over 50 surgeries. I was 28 and married with two young kids, ages 7 and 2. I went from being the man of the house doing my dream job to being reduced to nothing.”

Schechterle went back to work after 18 months and spent five more years on the force before surrendering to impaired eyesight and limitations to his hands created by finger amputation. At 46, he travels the country as an inspirational speaker. He spoke to AXA Advisers Great Lakes in Rochester in January.

Police vehicle safety today is unprecedented, from crash resistance to fuel tank protection, said Becky Mueller, senior research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “If you’re rear-ended at a really high rate of speed, you want to make sure the fuel tank doesn’t rupture. That’s what causes either fire or explosion. You want to strengthen the structure and absorb energy. Design could do both of those.”

The safety testing institute doesn’t track rear-end collision data involving police but it has observed an increase in "passenger vehicle occupant deaths in multiple-vehicle crashes" with the primary impact point in the rear — from 622 in 2010 to 1,207 in 2017.

Overall crash deaths went from 32,885 in 2010 to 37,133 fatalities In 2017, said institute spokesman Joseph Young. 

Newer SUVs no longer have a rollover issue, Mueller said. “And a brand new Police Interceptor is safer than whatever older model vehicle an officer was riding in prior.”

Fastest cop car ever

The price of the all-new 2020 Police Interceptor Utility, which is available with a hybrid or gasoline engine, is priced at $37,000 to $40,000 but may be sold for less because police agencies require a competitive bidding process.

In head-to-head testing, the new Ford Explorer-based law enforcement vehicle will be the fastest cop car on the street, with the ability to reach 150 mph, according to test data from the Michigan State Police.

“The fact that a big SUV can smoke a Hemi Charger around a racetrack is pretty ridiculous. The 2020 Ford Police Interceptor Utility is a beast,” Chris Terry, Ford product communications spokesman, said in October 2018.

Tests by the Michigan State Police and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department establish benchmarks that law enforcement agencies all over the country use to evaluate vehicles.

“Everyone in law enforcement is going with SUVs. We need more room because of the computers in the cars now, equipment, cameras. The Explorers have more room,” Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer said in October. 

The issue of police safety goes beyond cars, said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. "We should care because they often risk their lives for ours."

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Ford's 2020 Explorer for police has hidden lifesaving design feature

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