NHTSA expands investigation of Jeep SUVs

Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said it’s just a matter of time before Chrysler is forced to recall as many as 5 million Jeep SUVs built from 1993 to 2007.

The Auburn Hills automaker disagrees.

Based on data from more than 21,000 rear-impact collisions involving Jeep Grand Cherokees and other models from those years, the automaker says the risk of gas tanks catching fire is no greater than in other SUVs.

“The data demonstrates very clearly that the vehicles are no more likely to experience these rear-impact fire crashes than the peer vehicles,” said David Dillon, Chrysler’s senior manager of regulatory affairs.

Ditlow contends that there is a risk because the fuel tank is near the back of the vehicles.

The fuel tanks of Jeep Grand Cherokees built after 2004 are located in front of the rear axle.

“Just looking at the design, as a safety advocate, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize an unshielded tank, hanging below the rear bumper, is unsafe,” Ditlow said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday it is expanding its preliminary investigation into an engineering analysis, and will also look at Jeep Cherokees from the 1993 through 2001 model years, and Jeep Libertys from 2002 through 2007.

An engineering analysis is a necessary step before the agency decides whether to require a recall.

Ditlow and his group have asked NHTSA and Chrysler to recall 1993-2004 model-year Grand Cherokees since October 2009.

“NHTSA’s assessment of the data collected during preliminary evaluation indicates that rear-impact-related tank failures and vehicle fires are more prevalent in the Jeep Grand Cherokee than in the non-Jeep peer vehicles,” the agency said on its website Thursday.

Chrysler said that it is cooperating with the investigation and said it expects NHTSA will decide that a recall is unnecessary.

In total, there have been more than 180 fatal crashes involving Jeep Grand Cherokees for the model years in question, Dillon said, but not all of those crashes involved rear-end collisions.

Dillon said Chrysler found 25 fatal crashes for the Jeep Grand Cherokee that involved fires and rear-end collisions.

“Almost all of these impacts are … at very high speeds, in excess of 50 m.p.h.,” Dillon said.

Chrysler’s vehicles also met NHTSA’s crash standards, Dillon said.

“We feel confident these vehicles will be exonerated,” Dillon said.

If Chrysler is wrong, the company faces the prospect of dealing with a massive recall. As part of its 2009 restructuring, Chrysler assumed responsibility for safety recalls for vehicles it made before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

However, the company is shielded from any lawsuits for crashes that occurred before the bankruptcy proceedings.

NHTSA declined to say how long the investigation may take or why the agency decided to expand its scope.

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, said he is concerned that NHTSA’s decision to expand the number of vehicles could lead to a dismissal of the case without a recall.

“Frequently that is done as a tactic to try and minimize the numbers,” Kane said. “If they spread out the accidents across more vehicles … then you have low number of incidents and that is a reason that the agency can use” to not order a recall.

Source:  Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or [email protected] Published in Detroit Free Press:  http://www.freep.com/article/20120615/BUSINESS01/206150331/NHTSA-expands-investigation-of-Jeep-SUVs?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|FRONTPAGE|p  6/15/2012