NEW YORK (AP) – Ford Motor Co. said Thursday it will offer fire-supression technology as an option on Crown Victoria police cars, which have been linked to numerous deaths in rear-end collisions that caused gas-tank explosions.

The technology will be available for vehicles in 2005. Police cars on the road now cannot be retrofitted because the system uses advanced electronics and onboard sensors that must be integrated into a new computer system, Ford said.

About 85 percent of all police departments use Crown Victorias.

Since 1983, 14 officers have died in crashes when gas tanks erupted in flames after Crown Victorias were hit from behind. Critics say the behind-the-axle design of the tanks makes them vulnerable. When the cars are struck, the tank can wrap around the axle, be punctured by sharp bolts and explode.

The new technology will not be available to the public because it’s a sophisticated product designed for professional use, said Susan Cischke, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering.

Though Ford denies the cars are dangerous, the company about a year ago introduced a program of fitting older models with plastic shields to protect the gas tanks.

“We think the vehicles out there are safe. … And the trunk packs have been able to prevent sharp objects from puncturing the vehicle,” Cischke said.

Ford said it isn’t introducing the optional technology in response to lawsuits the company has been facing or because of any design defects.

“We’re doing this to make our vehicles safe and everything we can to make them even safer,” said Brenda Hines, a Ford spokeswoman.

Safety expert Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., was disappointed with Ford’s response.

“Today’s officers need protection, not two years from now. Safety should not be an option, it should be standard equipment,” he said.

The company said it was too soon to say how much the option would cost because it’s still in development.

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AP-ES-08-07-03 2214EDT

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