Austin Police Sgt. Zachary LaHood told CBS News he’s “lucky to be alive” after experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning from a leak in his Ford Explorer. Six other Austin police officers have also been treated for carbon monoxide exposure in the last week, so the department has taken 37 of its Ford Explorer Police Interceptors out of service.
The Ford Explorer Police Interceptor Utility is the best-selling cop car in America, accounting for over half of the cop cars sold in the United States.
The police department alleges that carbon monoxide from the Explorers’ exhaust leaks into the cabin, poisoning those inside. Carbon monoxide exposure—the reason people die from exhaust fumes when they run a car in a closed garage—is no joke, as LaHood spoke to CBS about one particularly harrowing moment while on-duty in his police Explorer:
I remember swerving into what I thought was a bus. I was going to go head-in to a bus or maybe it was a garbage truck—I think it was a bus.
LaHood, who has served as a police officer for 13 years, is now suing Ford over what he alleges was carbon monoxide poisoning seeping into his Explorer Police Interceptor. He is currently on medical leave following the incident.
Austin is not the first police department to have issues with carbon monoxide poisoning in the current-model Ford Explorer police vehicles, per CBS. Newport Beach, California, police officer Brian McDowell crashed his 2014 Explorer Police Interceptor Utility into a tree after blacking out behind the wheel. CBS News has video of both LaHood and McDowell’s incidents here.
LaHood’s lawsuit is not alone, either. At least half a dozen officers in California, Texas and Louisiana are now suing Ford over alleged carbon monoxide exposure in the cabin of their Explorer Police Interceptors, CBS reports.
An Austin police supervisor first experienced carbon monoxide exposure in one of the Explorers in March, Austin Police Assistant Chief Troy Gay said in a press conference on the matter. Since then, Gay says the department has reached out to Ford multiple times regarding the issue, however, he notes that the department will not be taking legal action against Ford at this time.
Many Explorers are still in use by the department, as I saw two on my brief lunch break in central Austin alone. Explorers currently comprise 61 percent of the department’s fleet, according to Gay. However, pulling a large number of Explorers from the fleet to investigate the carbon monoxide issue has caused the department to be running underneath its target of having 85 percent of its fleet in service, per Gay.
All Ford Explorers still in use by Austin police now carry a paper carbon monoxide detector in addition to a powered carbon monoxide detector that has been hardwired inside the Explorers, according to Gay. Officers have received additional training on how to detect and report carbon monoxide leaks, and have been told not to use the air recirculating feature on their cars’ HVAC systems, as it does not pull in fresh air from outside the vehicle.
A long-term solution to the problem is still being studied by the police department and its stakeholders. “Changes to our fleet for next year” is one possible solution Gay mentioned in his press conference on the matter, where the department could ask the city to allocate more funds to replace the Fords experiencing these issues.
“The health and well being of officers is our number one priority,” Gay said in the press conference. “We don’t want to compromise the safety of our officers,” he continued.
Gay also notes that the six officers who reported carbon monoxide exposure this week have been treated and released.
Both Ford as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have open investigations regarding this particular issue with not only Explorer Police Interceptors, but with Ford Explorers sold to consumers.
Over 450 complaints about exhaust leaks had been made to the NHTSA about 2011-2017 Ford Explorers, per a CBS News report from February. Per our own search of the NHTSA’s online database today, 567 complaints mention the word “exhaust” in some form, although this also turns up records that use the word “exhaust” in the complaint that aren’t necessarily making complaints about the exhaust leaks. 212 of the complaints for 2011-2017 Explorers specify “exhaust fumes;” 105 specify “carbon monoxide” and 20 complain of an “exhaust leak.”
Two complaints about exhaust fumes and high carbon monoxide levels in the cabin were logged under the separate Explorer Police Interceptor Utility model designation in the NHTSA’s database.
Drivers who’ve logged complaints about the problem report a sulfuric or rotten egg smell in the interiors of their Explorers which makes those inside sick, dizzy or lose consciousness. Unsealed seams in the rear of the SUV are reportedly to blame. At least one owner of a consumer-spec Explorer who spoke to CBS about the problem was so worried about the smell that he now also drives with a carbon monoxide detector in his SUV.
Ford has known about the issue since at least 2012. One company representative later acknowledged a “design issue” in a deposition obtained by CBS News. However, a Ford representative who spoke to CBS said that they have not found any issues related to carbon monoxide leaks into the cabin of their Explorer Police Interceptor Utility vehicles, suggesting that modifications made by individual police departments to their police cruisers may be to blame for these issues:
We have investigated and not found any carbon monoxide issue resulting from the design of our Police Interceptor Utility Vehicles. We know police modify these vehicles, which can contribute to exhaust-related issues. We have provided instructions to help seal these modifications and are ready to inspect any vehicles with this concern.
Jalopnik has reached out to Ford on this issue and will update this story if we receive a response.
UPDATE [10:42 p.m.]: A Ford representative sent us the exact same statement (verbatim) that CBS News received on the matter in response to our inquiry on the issue.
An Austin Police Department representative also responded with some clarification on the number of Ford Explorers that have been pulled from service. In addition to the 37 Ford Explorers pulled from service by the Austin Police Department over carbon monoxide issues, three more Ford Explorers have been parked from other City of Austin departments.