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Ford To Fix Crown Vic. Fire Hazard

In a job filled with unexpected dangers, police departments across the country got some help today, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker.

The Ford Motor Company, faced with mounting death tolls and lawsuits from fiery rear-end crashes of its Crown Victoria police cruisers, agreed to install shields around the controversial car's fuel tanks.

Sue Cischke, Vice President of Ford, says, "While no one can eliminate all accidents or take away the unpredictability of extremely high speed crashes, these actions we are talking about today will make a real difference to police.

Ford acted under pressure from the state of Arizona, where three officers have burned to death. Ford insists the car is safe. But with its dominance of the police market in jeopardy, the car maker will spend some $50 million to retrofit 350,000 police cars.

Phoenix Police Association President Jake Jacobson, once a vocal critic, now is satisfied.

Jacobson explains, "The shielding is going to make a difference in the safety of these vehicles."

The shields are new Ford technology, designed to cover sharp edges and objects on the axle and frame that can puncture the fuel tank in a collision. Consumer advocates say it is a good first step.

Joan Claybrook, Consumer Advocate, says, "They're about 2 to 3 million consumer cars that are similar and we believe that they should be all corrected as well."

Approximately 80 percent of police cars on the road in the United States are Ford Crown Victorias.

However, as Whitaker reports, today's agreement hasn't stopped the five class action suits against the car from going forward and Phoenix still hasn't decided whether to buy more Crown Victorias in the future.

Sue Cischke, vice president of engineering for Ford, said the automaker was responding to concerns raised by police nationwide. But she maintained the Crown Victoria is a safe car.

"We're trying to make a safe car safer," Cischke said.

Shields made of plastic and rubber will be installed on the rear axle, the differential and underneath the gas tanks. Those components have either been faulted in accidents or showed the potential to puncture the gas tank in crash tests.

"This is a significant step forward in the safety of the Crown Victoria," said Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, who has been pressing Ford to make the cars safer.

Cischke said the retrofit kits should start arriving at Ford dealerships by the end of next month, and all the shields should be installed by January.

She said the same modifications will not be made to the consumer version of the Crown Victoria, though drivers will be able to buy retrofit kits if they want them.