Safeguards in place

Safety upgrade on patrol car averted tragedy, sheriff say


Columbia County Sheriff's Chaplain Robert Davis composed himself before talking to reporters about a crash involving the Ford Crown Victoria behind him. Davis' son, Deputy Jeff Davis, was in a similar car when he was killed in a similar accident nearly 1 1/2 years ago. The car behind Davis has safety equipment that was not on his son's squad car.

KAREN VOYLES/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 12:58 a.m.
Lake City - Less than two years after the death of a young deputy following a fiery crash in a Crown Victoria patrol car, Columbia County Sheriff Frank Owens had another deputy survive a similar crash in a similar car.
Owens credits additional gas tank protection for making the difference in the most recent crash.
"We think we've made a full circle from a tragic situation from a year and a half ago," Owens said. "There is a great possibility it would have come out differently without the safety gear."
Ford's Crown Victoria has been the target of several lawsuits around the country, including one pending in Lake City resulting from Columbia County Deputy Jefferson Hancock Davis' death in May 2002. Generally, the suits claim that flammability problems with the nation's most popular patrol car have resulted in deaths of officers who become trapped inside while the car was on fire.
Ford officials have responded to the criticism by pointing to the continuing popularity of the Crown Victorias and noting that because law enforcement officers work in risky situations, their patrol cars are exposed to hazardous circumstances. Ford also has offered safety upgrades on existing cruisers and has begun installing safety equipment at its factories to reduce the chance of the gas tank being punctured, especially in collisions involving the back half of the cars.
In Davis' fatal late-night crash, he was on his way to help another deputy with a burglary-in-progress call when he swerved to avoid hitting three teenagers walking in his lane on a dark road, authorities said. Davis' patrol car rotated and then slid into a pine tree, a rear-side impact. The patrol car caught on fire, and witnesses spent the approximately seven minutes it took for fire trucks to arrive trying to extract Davis and extinguish the fire, according to police.
Davis was the son of the Rev. Robert Davis, the Sheriff's Office chaplain who was with Owens on Friday morning to show the car from the most recent wreck to reporters.
"I am glad that there have been changes and that this deputy survived," Davis said. "I regret that they did not have this fixed in the car my son was driving and they (Ford) still have a long way to go."
In the latest crash, the deputy driving the car and his two passengers survived being hit from behind at 47 mph, Owens said.
According to Sheriff's Investigator Don Meyer's report on the Jan. 10 wreck, Deputy Randall Harrison, 32, was driving a 2003 Crown Victoria west on Bascom Norris Road toward the county jail. Harrison had stopped to allow a car ahead of him make a left turn off of Bascom Norris. A 2000 Nissan being driven by Aprill Jeanne Lord, 40, a Lake City waitress, "failed to slow or stop and never applied the brakes" before hitting Harrison's car from behind, according to police.
Harrison and his front-seat passenger, Miller Bell, 23, a Lake Butler resident preparing to become a law enforcement officer, were treated at local hospitals for injuries. They have been released from the hospital, and Harrison was able to return to duty Thursday.
The back-seat passenger, Dexter Thomas, 38, of Lake City, refused medical treatment. He had been picked up for driving with a suspended license, reports said.
Lord was taken to the Florida Highway Patrol station where breath tests registered readings of .154 and .153, nearly double the state standard of .08 at which a driver is presumed impaired. She was charged with DUI with serious bodily injury, open container and no proof of insurance, authorities said.
"What we learned from this is that - at least in the range of the 40- to 50-mph crashes - the safety equipment does work," Owens said. He said all of his agency's Crown Victorias had been retrofitted with the safety equipment and that the 2003 model Harrison was driving, and all other 2003 and 2004 models in the department's fleet, had come from Ford with factory-installed additional safety gear.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.

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