Crown Victorias Come Under Fire

FILE- In this file photo dated April 30, 2009, showing former British First World War veteran Henry Allingham, who died aged 113-years old, on Saturday July 18, 2009. Allingham joined the British Royal Naval Ar Service in 1915 and took part in the infamous WWI naval battle, the Battle of Jutland. Allingham was the world's oldest man. With the death of Allingham, there is now only one surviving WWI veteran.( AP Photo / Gareth Fuller, file, PA) ** UNITED KINGDOM OUT - NO SALES - NO ARCHIVES **
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In the last 20 years, a dozen police officers around the United States have died in fiery rear end collisions of Ford Crown Victorias.

Now, as CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports, a flurry of individual lawsuits and four class-action suits claim fuel tank design problems make the Crown Victoria especially prone to burn in high-speed, rear end crashes.

Last month, the fourth patrol car fire in Arizona in three years took the life of officer Robert Nielsen.

Phoenix officer Jason Schechterle might have walked away from his 100-mph rear-end collision with just two cracked ribs, but for the resulting fire, which left him with scarring from 4th degree burns.

"Twelve officers are dead," says Schechterle. "I look the way I do. They know that they have a problem.

"All of us would have walked away except for the fires."

When asked if he considered the design of the Crown Victoria dangerous, Jake Jacobson, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said "absolutely."

Crown Victorias make up 85 percent of the nation's police fleet. The bulked up version - the Police Interceptor, like the civilian Crown Vic - is a slightly modified, decades-old design.

Its fuel tank is located behind the rear axle, Jacobson says. That's where critics say it's more apt to be crushed or punctured in rear end accidents.

"So the whole thing is crushed all the way to the rear windshield," says Glenn McGovern, attorney for a state trooper who died in a Louisiana crash. "And you've got an inferno.

"It's not an interceptor, it's an incinerator."

The one thing both sides agree on is that police work is dangerous, routinely exposing officers, stopped on busy highways, to auto accidents.

But plaintiffs claim Ford aggressively markets the car to police, knowing the nature of their work, yet failing to warn of fire risk if rear-ended at highway speeds.

Ford wouldn't speak on camera, but did provide CBS with a written statement.

"The Crown Victoria Police Interceptor is a safe and effective vehicle for police work," the statement says. "We currently are unaware of technologies that can prevent fires in any vehicle at the impact speeds ranging from 70 mph to over 100 mph that have occurred in the Arizona incidents."

Ford further claims the Crown Victoria passes federal 30-mph speed tests and Ford's more stringent 50-mph tests, but refuses to substantiate the latter claim with documents or video.

After initially resisting, Ford did hand over one tape - a re-enactment of a 1998 crash. In a 71-mph re-enactment, there was no fire, yet in the actual 66-mph accident Tucson officer Juan Cruz burned to death as his partner watched.

Though incidents are rare, the Crown Victoria is more likely to catch fire when hit from behind than any other car, according to federal statistics. In a recent taped deposition obtained by CBS News, Ford's chief design analyst Brian Geraghty was asked about those numbers.

In the deposition, Geraghty is asked, "if you look at the rate of fatalities in rear end collisions, the Crown Victoria is among the worst, isn't that true?"

Geraghty replies, "the data would show that, yes."

But later in the deposition Geraghty insists those numbers aren't valid and Ford maintains there is "no statistically significant difference in the fire rates between the Crown Victoria and other cars."

Cold comfort for Crown Victoria owners, say consumer advocates.

Clarence Ditlow, of the Center for Automotive Safety, says Ford needs to recall the Crown Victoria.

"Since 1999, the number of fire deaths has steadily increased, and we've reached a situation where we need a recall," Ditlow says.

Arizona is pushing Ford to make the car safer. Florida and Arizona refuse to buy any more until the problem is fixed. As for Jason Schechterle, he worries.

"As we sit here right now, there's probably at least 1,000 Crown Victorias sitting at traffic lights around this country with officers just doing their job."

Wondering about the fire next time.