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Crown Victoria police cruisers probed in wake of fatal accidents

June 11, 2002 PHOENIX -- The AP reported that at least 10 law enforcement officers have been killed over the past two decades after their Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers were hit from behind and burst into flames, and the government is investigating whether a defect could be to blame.

The accidents are similar to one that left Phoenix police officer Jason Schechterle severely disfigured with burns on his head, face and neck. Schechterle was responding to a call in March 2001 when his 1996 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor was struck by a cab going more than 100 mph. The police car's gas tank was punctured, causing an explosion.

Two other Arizona law officers are among those who have been killed in such accidents. In May, Ford Motor Co. settled lawsuits filed by the officers' families. The terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

Law enforcement agencies and plaintiffs' attorneys allege that in high-speed rear collisions, the gas tank is rammed into the axle and surrounding components, causing the tank to rupture.

Last October, Ford advised its dealers to replace a bolt and grind down a protruding tab on Crown Victoria models dating back to 1992 to reduce the risk of gas tank punctures.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a probe in November to determine whether the Crown Victoria's gas tank is vulnerable to rupture. And the Arizona attorney general's office has urged the automaker to recall the vehicles until they are repaired.

Ford dominates North American sales of police vehicles, with 80 percent to 85 percent of the market. Some 60,000 Crown Victoria Police Interceptors are sold annually.

"The fuel tank design is a safe one," said Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes. "Any vehicle that gets rammed while it is sitting on the side of a highway at more than 70 mph has the potential to suffer some damage. I don't think there's any vehicle on the road that can withstand that kind of impact."

Nevertheless, law enforcement agencies insist Ford should do more to make the cars safer.

Jake Jacobsen, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association and a board member of the National Association of Police Organizations, wants Ford to offer a bladder-style gas tank for its police cruisers. The bladder would reduce the chance of punctures from sharp edges, he said.

"The Crown Victoria is a very safe car in normal day-to-day family use," Jacobsen said. "The issue is police cars don't get hit at those speeds. They're on freeways. They're going to be hit by the drunks, by the drivers who are out of control.

"We are at no point close to saying we refuse to drive these cars," he said, "but we are also not going to sit still."