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Gas tanks pose new danger to police

In a profession rife with danger, police officers now might have a new worry: the gas tank on the car in which they're patrolling.

According to a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this week in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, the Ford-made Crown Victoria - by far the most-used police cruiser today - is unsafe because of a potential fire should its gas tank rupture in a rear-end collision.

The suit lists at least seven fuel-tank fires that resulted in injury or death. Ford, having received complaints, has established a task force to study the issue.

Still, representatives of several local police departments said they haven't had problems with the cruisers, even though their officers have had plenty of accidents that could have triggered such explosions.

“We've had a couple of really bad accidents where the cars were totaled out, but no fires or explosions,” said Lucas County Sheriff's Capt. Ron Berente. All the department's approximately 50 marked cars are Crown Victorias, he said.

Nearly every one of the Ohio Highway Patrol's marked fleet of 1,100 cars is a Crown Victoria, Lt. Gary Lewis, a patrol spokesman, said.

“We feel very confident in the cars,” he added.

The biggest danger to troopers during traffic stops is other drivers' inattention, the lieutenant said. He recalled a May, 2000, collision in which Trooper Robert Perez was killed as he did paperwork in his stopped car in Milan. A driver, travelling 88 mph, struck the rear of his vehicle, Lieutenant Lewis said.

Crown Victorias make up the majority of the about 140 cars in the marked fleet of the Toledo Police Department, according to Officer Randy Kozina.

He, like officers in other departments, said problems with the car were limited to normal wear-and-tear.

Tony Mack, a Perrysburg city mechanic, agreed. He said the fuel tanks don't seem to pose a problem “unless you get rear-ended at 70 to 100 mph, and at that point - whether there's a fire or not - it's not a good thing.”

All but two of the city's 18 police cruisers are Crown Victorias, he said.

Law enforcement has begun to rely on the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor model, in part because the car's large interior and heavy-duty electrical system accommodates law enforcement equipment, including computers, radios, light bars, and sirens.

Additionally, its V-8 engine and heavy-duty exterior handles the wear-and-tear of police driving, several police officers said. “There used to be quite a few cars to choose from, but over time it seemed the only thing left was the Ford,” said Perrysburg Township Police Chief Dennis Dauer.

Still, officers said they will keep a close eye on the issue as it develops.

“We spend eight hours a day in the car and often it's aggressive driving,” said Monroe County Sheriff's Capt. Tom Hudson.

“We've never had a catastrophic rear-end crash that could trigger such an explosion,” he said. “But that's not to say it could never happen, or even happen tomorrow.”

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