NHTSA Takes Heat After Chrysler Moves Ahead With Dubious Recall Fix

February 6, 2014 | Charles Bowen

chrysler explosionMany might remember the recall fight between Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that took place late last summer. The car company and the federal agency squared off over plans to recall potentially millions of Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee models due to the risk that they might explode in the event of a rear-impact collision. The issue arose after the consumer advocacy group, The Center for Auto Safety, brought attention to an alarming number of deaths it said were caused by a defective design in the Jeeps. The group, and its leader, Clarence Ditlow, argued that Chrysler made mistakes in designing the car. Specifically, the CAS said that Chrysler never should have placed the vehicle’s fuel tank behind the rear axle. The location of the fuel tank, as well as the height of the Jeeps, appears to increase the odds that the fuel tank will rupture in an accident.

The CAS has said that the flawed design resulted in the death of more than 150 innocent people, many of whom died painfully while trapped in burning vehicles. According to an investigation done by the NHTSA, they say the number of people killed in Jeep car fires is only 52. This may be lower, but it is certainly still alarming. Given the dangers presented by the fuel tank design, the CAS urged Chrysler to recall nearly 5 million vehicles. The NHTSA stepped into the fray and issued an unusually direct request that the car company recall 2.7 million Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee models made between 1993 and 2007. Chrysler proved defiant and flatly refused to issue the recall, starting a tense two-week standoff. Finally, the NHTSA caved and agreed to a much smaller 1.5-million car recall.

The recall was announced months ago and many consumer advocates began to wonder what was taking Chrysler so long to actually fix the affected vehicles. The problem appears to have been related to more handwringing between the NHTSA and the automaker over the chosen method of repair. Chrysler said that it wanted to simply attach a trailer hitch to the back of each of the Jeeps, claiming that the trailer hitch would help protect the gas tank in case of a rear-impact accident. The NHTSA was reluctant to give the green light, especially after Chrysler’s own studies indicated that the trailer hitch would do little or nothing to protect gas tanks in the event of a medium or high-speed accident. Despite the doubt, the NHTSA finally decided to give the go ahead and Chrysler now says it will begin informing customers over the coming weeks.

Though the recall is a good thing, many wonder whether the chosen method of repair will do anything to solve the problem. The CAS has issued several blistering press releases about the matter, saying that the NHTSA caved under pressure from Chrysler, setting a dangerous and potentially deadly precedent with what it believes is a “sham recall.” The hope is that the recall actually succeeds, though if the CAS is right, millions of Jeep owners might still have reason to worry.

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