T-Minus three and counting before the rollercoaster ride that is the tenure of Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood careens to a stop. But, not before he did one last handstand for the crowd.
With the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Chrysler on a collision course over a recall to remedy the aft-of-the axle fuel tank design of the early model Jeep Grand Cherokees and some Jeep Liberty SUVs that is prone to explode into flames in a rear impact, LaHood, donned his super-hero tights and flew to what he imagined to be the rescue.
Now, most backroom deals attempt to stay on the QT. But, Ray LaHood, never one to miss an opportunity to pat himself on the back, could not be silent. He gave David Shepardson of The Detroit News the scoop: Six days before Chrysler would have to formally respond to NHTSA’s request that Chrysler recall 2.7 million 1994-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs, Ray got Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne on the blower and said something like, “Look here, old man, no one takes safety more seriously than Ray LaHood and we’ve got to figure this Jeep thing out!”
Chrysler had heretofore demonstrated a very public unwillingness to recall those Jeep models, based on a shaky statistical analysis that threw every model on the wall it could think of to make the pre-2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee (before they moved the tank) look not-so-horrible. On June 9, LaHood drove from his home in Peoria, Ill; Marchionne flew in from Italy and David Strickland, ever playing Jimmy Olsen to LaHood’s Superman, flew from D.C. to Chicago. The trio converged at the Federal Aviation Administration building at O’Hare Airport for a “tough, hour-long ‘frank’ meeting,” according to Shepardson’s story.
As reported by Shepardson, Marchionne dispatched some engineers the next day to D.C. to come up with “the outlines” of a remedy with NHTSA. In public, the confrontation appeared to build, encouraged by business and auto journalists who seemed excited by the prospect of Chrysler sticking its finger in the government’s eye. Just as the showdown drew nigh, the automaker announced that it would implement a “voluntary campaign” to add trailer hitches to some older models.
Ray could not contain his enthusiasm for the remedy:
“It means that (owners) will be protected,” LaHood told The Detroit News. “The trailer hitch protects them from an explosion. … It’s the right fix.”
Well Ray’s in a distinct minority there. Chrysler itself was rather lukewarm on the benefits of its recall campaign. Rather than the 2.7 million Jeeps the agency was seeking to have repaired, Chrysler – very grudgingly – agreed to cut the list in half to 1.5 million, 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs. The “fix” would entail installing a trailer hitch on vehicles not already so equipped “provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation.” Chrysler will inspect vehicles with aftermarket and Chrysler-designed tow hitches “to assess whether the hitch and surrounding areas show evidence of sharp edges or other puncture risks. For those vehicles with after-market hitches, Chrysler will replace it with a Chrysler tow hitch “provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation.”
Chrysler described it as an incremental improvement to safety in low-speed rear impact crashes.
The automaker’s Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Notice is a hands-down winner in the chutzpah category. For one, it’s another of the ever-shifting Chrysler explanations about why there is no problem. The automaker’s main argument before – we’re not a statistical outlier – was misapplied to two different populations of peer vehicles. But for its recall notice, the reason is now that all of those fiery crashes were so severe, they were not survivable:
“Indeed, the resultant damage to the struck vehicles in most of these cases would not have been prevented by taking any reasonable countermeasure steps with respect to the vehicles, and would have occurred in vehicles of other makes and models. In Chrysler Group’s judgment, the Subject Vehicles do not contain a defect related to motor vehicle safety in either design or performance. Accordingly, by a letter being filed separately today, Chrysler Group will explain why it is declining your request for a safety recall to address the risks of post-collision fire in high-speed, high-energy crashes.”
By the by, where is that letter? Not in the public file. The whole affair is another high-water mark in X-Ray’s Most-Transparent-Administration-Evah™ . He cut deals on civil fines with Toyota on two critical safety issues – unintended acceleration and defective relay rods. Toyota paid the largest penalties in NHTSA history. Yet, in two out of three Recall Queries, NHTSA did not make any of the supporting documentation – the demand letter, Toyota responses, the data, nothing, nada, rien, available. When The Safety Record Blog submitted FOIA requests for these materials, NHTSA told us it would cost thousands of dollars to find out exactly why Toyota paid the U.S. government millions of dollars. Sounds like a bargain, right? (We wonder what it’s going to cost us to get the Jeep documents, assuming there are any.)
Second, Chrysler’s Defect and Noncompliance Notice is amazingly peevish. If a part 573 could sneer, this one would have. The text concluded:
“Although Chrysler Group does not agree that the risk of fuel leakage in low-speed impacts constitutes a safety-related defect within the meaning of the federal safety laws, and has not determined that any such defect exists in the Subject Vehicles, Chrysler Group is willing to notify its customers of the safety recall for the Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ) and the Jeep Liberty (KJ) in voluntary compliance with the notification procedures contained in Section 577.7 of the agency’s regulations, and will voluntarily provide six quarterly reports of campaign completion, consistent with Section 573.7 of the agency’s regulations.”
It’s letters like these that drove the agency to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last November, which, among other things, would prohibit such disclaimers. Under the proposal, manufacturers would be require to identify and describe the risk the defect or non-compliance poses to safety to NHTSA as they are already required to do in their customer notification letters. That means they have to mention the potential for a crash, without warning or a description of a prior warning. If there’s no crash potential, the manufacturer’s statement must indicate the general type of injury that could occur. The rule is pending.
Safety advocates have also mounted a strenuous objection to this remedy. Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, which pressed the agency in 2009 to open an investigation, complained that the trailer hitch would do nothing to shield the fuel tank from the underride of the striking vehicle. Jenelle Embrey, the Virginia woman who had no real opinion about the safety of the Jeep Grand Cherokee until she saw one of those severe, high-speed crashes in which two of the occupants survived the impact, only to die in the fiery explosion that followed, is outraged at Chrysler’s public posture.
Her traumatic experience drove her to mount a one-woman crusade, featuring graphic billboards, a high-profile protest at a dealership and a change.org petition that attracted 128,000 signatures. Embrey and Ditlow are scheduled to meet with NHTSA officials next week. She astutely pinpointed the arrogance of a company, bailed out more than once by the American taxpayers, which “then refuses to recall its dangerous Jeeps thinking that those same Americans just wouldn’t notice,” she says. “Trailer hitches? I’m no auto engineer but I am pretty confident they are designed for hitching trailers. I cannot find any evidence anywhere as to their effectiveness as safety devices to protect gas tanks erroneously placed in the crush zone of a vehicle. Chrysler just makes me sick.”
And The Safety Record Blog? We get queasy watching Ray LaHood work his behind-the-scenes safety deals. He’s no auto engineer either. NHTSA is supposed to be a data-driven agency. And we’ve seen NHTSA misuse data and cherry-pick data, but, at least maintain the veneer of data. But Ray – he doesn’t need any of that – just a meeting between a captain of industry and the prince of auto safety, a nod and a wink.
Some of our favorite Ray LaHood exploits: