After a public disagreement that threatened to blow up into a larger battle, Chrysler agreed to recall 2.7 million Jeep vehicles that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said could potentially erupt into fire if rear-ended. Chrysler had been expected to refuse to comply with a voluntary recall request sent by NHTSA. That request covered Jeep Grand Cherokees in model years 1993 to 2004 and Libertys in model years 2002 to 2007.
NHTSA had warned after investigations that a crash from behind on these vehicles could puncture the fuel tank, located in the rear of the models, spill fuel and potentially cause a fire. The safety agency said the defect may have been responsible for up to 51 deaths. Chrysler had disagreed with NHTSA’s assessment. But it appears that the agreement between NHTSA and the automaker that led to the recall may need further review.
The Center for Auto Safety, the group responsible for the investigation that led to Chrysler’s recall, says Chrysler’s remedy – adding a factory-built trailer hitch – won’t properly protect consumers. Chrysler’s recall plan, which the automaker contends was worked out with approval from NHTSA, is to install a trailer hitch on Jeeps that do not have them and inspect vehicles that already have hitches installed. Trailer hitches protrude from the rear of the vehicle behind the fuel tank, but they were designed to carry a load, not crumple to absorb the energy of a crash.
Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center, says that adding a trailer hitch provides inadequate protection for fuel tanks that could leak as a result of an impact, increasing the risk of fire. He is concerned that the hitches are mounted in the center of the rear bumper. That means another vehicle could still hit the gas tank at an angle and puncture the fuel tank. In addition, a vehicle that was braking hard before colliding with the rear end of an affected Jeep model might dive under the trailer hitch in a crash. The front end of the striking vehicle would dip under hard braking.
Chrysler’s report to NHTSA said the hitch would “incrementally improve the performance of certain of the subject vehicles in certain types of low-speed impacts.” The report also says that the hitch “cannot and will not mitigate the risk of the high-energy rear collisions identified in your (NHTSA) recall request letter.”
In at least one case, in which a child died, a police investigator concluded a trailer hitch was responsible for the fire. In that case, in 2006, a police investigator concluded that a trailer hitch was responsible for puncturing the fuel tank and causing a fire in a 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee involved in a rear-end crash in Cleburne, Tex. The Grand Cherokee was stopped on a two-lane highway and was struck from behind by a 2001 Chevrolet Lumina. A child who was a passenger in the Grand Cherokee survived the impact but died later from burns and smoke inhalation. It was unclear whether the Jeep’s hitch was a factory-installed unit.
Ditlow believes a better solution to Jeep’s fuel tank problem would be to install a skid plate – a metal shield made to protect the fuel tank when driving off-road – on recalled vehicles. Skid plates were an available option on the modes covered by the recall. In 2009, the Center for Auto Safety filed a defect petition with NHTSA over the Jeep fuel tank problem, a move that required the agency to consider the issue, which it had not previously done. The Center has contended that 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees are more vulnerable to fires than vehicles of the same era because the gas tank was mounted behind the rear axle and somewhat below the bumper.
Chrysler said that it had agreed to recall 1993-98 Grand Cherokee and 2002-7 Liberty models, even though it maintains there is a no safety problem. A sample of the letter it plans to send owners announcing the recall says there is a “small chance” of experiencing a fuel leak “during certain types of rear-end collisions.” But in a report filed last year, NHTSA expressed a higher level of concern, noting that “rear-impact-related tank failures and vehicle fires are more prevalent in the Jeep Grand Cherokee than in non-Jeep peer vehicles.”
Ditlow believes NHTSA should crash-test the trailer hitches before allowing the recall to go forward. The automaker’s remedy fails to address a second concern raised by the auto safety center: a fuel-filler hose from the gas tank on the Grand Cherokee that is prone to breaking away and lacks a valve to prevent fuel from leaking. The Center commissioned crash tests that, according to Ditlow, showed pressure on the tank could cause gas to spray out. Or, if the vehicle rolled over, the fuel would pour out of the tank. However, the safety agency never investigated that assertion.
Source: NBC News
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