The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month formally closed its long-running investigation into fire risks in 2.7 million 1994-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys. NHTSA accepted the company’s proposed fix – a trailer hitch intended to provide additional protection for the gas tank, which is mounted between the rear axle and the bumper – for 1.6 million of the vehicles. This brings to a close the long-running controversy over the risk of fast-spreading fires in older Jeep SUVs. But several safety advocates aren’t satisfied with this action. When you consider the magnitude of the problem and the agreed-to fix, I believe their concerns are justified.
Many believe the location of the fuel tank creates a greater risk of fire in rear-end collisions and they question whether the trailer hitch is an adequate fix. While it’s been reported that at least 270 people have died in such fires, Chrysler and NHTSA dispute that number. They jointly claim the correct number to be in the 50s. Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, a well qualified and knowledgeable safety expert, observed:
It is tragic that NHTSA approved Chrysler’s sham trailer hitch recall for Jeeps that explode in rear impacts. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland will be remembered as the Administrator who took a job with one of Chrysler’s law firms rather than save more children like Cassidy Jarmon from burning to deaths in Jeeps with trailer hitches. In strong contrast former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook is remembered for saving lives by standing up to Ford and demanding crash tests and an improved remedy when Ford tried to foist off an inadequate remedy for the Pinto which exploded in rear impacts just like the Jeep.
Ditlow cited a photo of the trailer hitch-equipped Jeep in which Cassidy Jarmon, age 4, died when her family’s Grand Cherokee was rear-ended. Jenelle Embrey, a Virginia woman, organized a petition campaign seeking a recall of the Jeeps after she was rear-ended by a Jeep Grand Cherokee, which in turn was rear-ended by another vehicle and burst into flames, killing two occupants. Ms. Embrey gathered nearly 128,000 signatures and arranged a meeting with NHTSA officials to push hard for a recall, but got no commitments.
Inquiries by NHTSA began in 2009 when Ditlow filed a lengthy complaint with the agency, contending that the 1993-04 Grand Cherokee has a fatal crash fire occurrence rate that is about four times higher than SUVs made by other companies. As expected, this was denied by Chrysler. Last spring NHTSA asked Chrysler – Jeep’s parent company – to recall the SUVs. In an almost unprecedented response, Chrysler refused, saying the vehicles had a safety record roughly comparable to other SUVs.
A most “interesting” development took place at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport just a few weeks later, following a secret meeting between then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland and top Chrysler executives. At that meeting, a proposed “fix” to a most serious problem was discussed. Subsequently, it was announced that Chrysler had informally agreed to the trailer-hitch fix. Just a short time later, LaHood stepped down from his position at DOT. He is currently a co-chair of a non-profit organization seeking more tax funds to support transportation infrastructure.
Critics have blasted that secret meeting and assert that decisions relating to safety should be made through study and testing and not in backroom deals. The critics say that backroom deals like this one have no place in a regulatory system and I totally agree with them. NHTSA should not have accepted Chrysler’s plan, according to the critics, without crash testing to determine whether the fix is adequate. Ditlow, in a June 2013 statement, had said:
We call on NHTSA to do crash tests of Chrysler’s proposed remedy, just as it did with Ford’s proposed remedy for the Pinto in 1978, to determine that the modified Jeeps meet the present Safety Standard just as the Pinto’s had to the meet the new Safety Standard in 1978. If the modified Jeeps do not pass, we call on NHTSA to require Chrysler to develop a more effective remedy just as NHTSA did with the Pinto when it failed the first round of tests.
Ditlow noted that the Pinto – which also had a gas tank mounted behind the rear axle – was required by NHTSA to be brought up to “current safety standards,” not the standards that were in effect “at the time the cars were built.” In the Jeep case, Chrysler argues that it should only have to meet standards that were in effect when the Jeeps were built. Back in 2011, Ralph Nader called on Chrysler to recall the Jeeps, calling them “a modern day Pinto for soccer moms with a fuel tank located dangerously behind the rear axle in the crush zone of an impact.” It appears that he was correct in making that assessment. It won’t be known whether NHTSA actually conducted any crash tests involving the jeeps until formal reports are released in the next few months. I won’t be surprised if there were no crash tests done.
Chrysler’s agreement to go ahead with the trailer hitch fix and NHTSA’s agreement to close the investigation also appear to be the result of an extracurricular conversation, according to The New York Times. The Times reported that outgoing NHTSA head Strickland talked by telephone with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne on Jan. 6 and finalized the agreement. This is a rather strange way for a federal regulatory agency to “regulate” the automobile industry. It doesn’t meet the old-fashioned “smell test!”
As part of the Strickland-Marchionne deal, Chrysler reportedly agreed to install the trailer hitches only if NHTSA would agree to stop describing the vehicles as “defective.” It was reported that this is a description that puts Chrysler at a disadvantage in civil lawsuits brought by victims of rear-end-related fires and their survivors. While I totally disagree with Chrysler on that point, I can understand why the automaker wouldn’t want that descriptive term to be used against the company. They simply don’t want to deal with the truth, it appears, I am afraid that more innocent victims will be seriously injured or killed because of a very bad decision made by those in charge at NHTSA.
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