Officer John Wheeler survived a hail of gunfire when a bank robber blasted an AK-47 at his patrol car. He battled back from the wounds and earned an award for his bravery.

But during a routine traffic patrol in San Antonio in 2005, Wheeler was killed when his Crown Victoria was struck from behind and exploded into flames.

Patrolman George Brentar, 49, was on radar detail in Euclid, Ohio, chasing a speeder when his Crown Victoria patrol car hydroplaned, struck a utility pole and burst into flames on Oct. 10, killing the father of two.

Last year, two Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers died when their cruiser spun out of control and struck a pickup truck south of Columbus. The troopers were caught in an inferno and died.

Explosive patrol-car crashes are happening across the country.

Safety advocates and police unions say car-fire deaths in Crown Victorias can and should be prevented. Agencies across the country are installing fire-suppression systems on cruisers to prevent officers from dying in fires after crashes. The fire systems coat fuel tanks with extinguishing powder and stop the tanks from exploding into fireballs.

Ford counters that any cruiser involved in a high-speed crash runs the risk of catching fire.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of car you are driving,” said Ford spokesman Dan Jarvis. “If you are hit from behind at 60 to 90 mph, you are not going to walk away from the crash.”

The Crown Victoria has a gas tank behind the rear axle and in the crush zone, the area of the cruiser most likely to crumble in a crash.

Perry said.

Texas attorney David Perry has represented 20 families in lawsuits involving fatal Crown Victoria fires, getting numerous multimillion-dollar settlements from Ford. Most of his clients are families of police officers.

The Crown Victoria has a gas tank behind the rear axle and in the crush zone, the area of the cruiser most likely to crumble in a crash, Perry said.

“Ford has the only cars made that have the gas tank in such a vulnerable location behind the rear axle,” Perry said. “Other manufacturers moved them to a better protected location. In the Crown Vic, they are still using ’70s technology. The technology to make the cars safer has been available for years.”

Dozens of cities sued Ford in 2002, claiming faulty gas tanks made the cruisers unsafe. Ford then agreed to install trunk shields to prevent objects in the trunk from puncturing the gas tank. Police union officials said all the trunk shields have yet to be installed.

A Web site – crownvictoriasafetyalert.com – is spreading the word of the gas tank problem and says it affects privately owned cars, too. The site estimates that 5 million privately owned Crown Victorias, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars are vulnerable. The Web site wants Ford to spread the word about the availability of a safety shield that helps protect the gas tanks in a crash. The shield costs about $100, plus labor to install it, and it is available at Ford dealers.

Some safety experts say more could and should be done to protect police on the road.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, said too many people die from the Crown Victoria’s design. Nearly 30 years ago, the center persuaded Ford to recall Pintos after 28 deaths.

“A lot of police officers like the Crown Vic because they are so large and roomy and generally withstand most crashes,” Ditlow said. “If you survive the trauma of a crash, you should not die from the trauma of a fire. Ford ought to recall them and put in a fire suppression system.”

Ford announced last week that it will no longer sell the Crown Victoria to the public after next year but will continue to offer the car to police and cab companies. Sales have declined with many police departments switching to faster Chevrolets, the company said.

Jarvis, the Ford spokesman, estimated 85 percent of all police cars in the nation are Crown Victorias, with about 350,000 patrolling the nation’s roads. The car exceeds national safety standards, he said.

The gas-tank fires are rare and caused by driving conditions, not faulty design, Jarvis said. Cruisers are more prone to severe crashes because they are often driven at high speeds and parked along highways, where they are apt to be struck from behind.

“Any car on the road hit with that impact would have its fuel line breached,” Jarvis said. “It is not limited to the Crown Vic.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studied Crown Victoria crashes in 2002 and determined the car met safety standards. Many of the police crashes resulted from high-speed incidents that few cars would withstand, the agency ruled.

But with deaths mounting in recent years, some police groups want to see action.

In 2003, the national Fraternal Order of Police urged Ford to install fire-suppression systems on its Crown Victoria Police Interceptor.

Ford offered the fire systems on new Crown Victorias in 2005 but increased the cost on its 2007 model from $2,500 to $3,495, according to its Web site.

Lt. Nick DiMarco, president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, said cities are reluctant to purchase any fire system because of the cost. The Florida, Connecticut and Oklahoma highway patrols have ordered the fire systems on new cruisers since 2006.

Some police say they face enough danger on the job. A patrol car ought to be a safe place for an officer.

Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, doubts his city could afford to buy the suppression systems. Still, he said, officials ought to find a way.

“NASCAR cars smash into each other at 200 mph and don’t blow up,” he said.


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