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Accident-plagued police due smaller cars City is buying 400 Tauruses in next 2 years.


Faced with a 7.9 percent increase in traffic accidents, the Baltimore Police Department is abandoning its big-engined, full-size cars in favor of smaller vehicles with less pep.

The city plans to purchase 400 six-cylinder Ford Tauruses over the next two years to replace an aging fleet that includes Chevrolet Caprices with eight-cylinder engines.

Ninety new cars that will be delivered to the department over the next two weeks will be equally distributed among the city's nine police districts, Sam Ringgold, the city police spokesman, said.

Mr. Ringgold declined to reveal how much the new fleet is costing city taxpayers. The city and state are jointly purchasing Tauruses, a move that will result in a per-car discount for both governments because of the volume of the sale, Mr. Ringgold said.

In 1991, the city police force recorded 627 crashes involving officers or fleet vehicles -- a 7.9 percent increase over 581 in 1990.

Last year, a relatively large number of preventable accidents occurred among young officers with little time on the police force.

Of the 232 preventable accidents recorded last year, 112 involved officers between the ages of 21 and 26. Officers with six months to three years of experience were responsible for 129 preventable crashes -- more than half the total, according to Police Department statistics.

A Police Department report gave this scenario for a typical crash:

"The operator will be between 21 and 26 years of age, with three years or less of police experience. The weather will be clear, and the roadway will be dry. The operator will be on routine patrol at the time of the accident, with no emergency equipment activated. The accident most likely will occur within the confines of an intersection or the operator will strike a fixed object."

Deputy Police Commissioner Michael Zotos also attributed the problem to the relative inexperience of the drivers and the fact that some of them had never "driven a big car before."

"The hope is that they [younger officers] will feel more comfortable [with the mid-sized cars] and there will be fewer accidents," Mr. Ringgold said. "Some of them haven't had their drivers' licenses that long. They haven't been behind the wheel that long."

Mr. Ringgold said 137 officers claimed injury last year because of the departmental accidents, which resulted in a cumulative total of 909 sick days.

Some officers were required to take remedial driving courses after an accident review board determined that they were involved in preventable crashes. The board also disciplined officers by requiring them to seek counseling or to forfeit leave time. In extreme cases, officers were not allowed behind the wheel of a patrol car for up to a year.

The new cars will be light blue with blue and white stripes. They will be equipped with anti-lock brakes, front-wheel drive, a heavy-duty cooling system, suspensions designed for tight maneuvering and air bags.

The cars will also have "real nice AM-FM stereo radios," said Mr. Ringgold. The radios were "thrown in free" -- the department "would have had to pay extra to have them removed," he added.

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