Burning Questions: Why Did NHTSA Let Chrysler Slide?

Last Friday, David Shepardson of the Detroit News announced for NHTSA what many knew was coming: the 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and 2002 - 2007 Jeep Liberty rear-impact fuel-fed fires investigation is over. No recall. The ornamental trailer hitch will stand as a symbolic gesture of a remedy.

This one has all the hallmarks of what has become an Office of Defects Investigation classic: design defect too difficult/costly to correct? Check. Bogus, untested remedy? Check. Appearance of action? Check.

You could tell that NHTSA was real proud of its work by the timing of the disclosure: 5 p.m. on a Friday before a holiday weekend. Classic public relations bury-the-news-and-hope-nobody-notices move. Release the information, and head home for the holidays. Classic and classy!

“Words cannot describe how disappointed I am in NHTSA and US DOT in general,” says Jenelle Embrey, the fiery Linden, Virginia woman who teamed up with the Center for Auto Safety to advocate for a recall on the older model Jeeps with the fuel tank aft of the rear axle design. Embrey launched her own crusade after witnessing the deaths of 18-year-old Acoye Breckenridge and the driver Heather Lee Santor in an October 2012 crash. Embrey’s dad, Harry Hamilton, managed to save one occupant of Jeep Grand Cherokee before it exploded.

Crazy Ray’s Give Away!

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:

Will Chrysler stand behind the Jeep?

Well, today’s the day Chrysler must formally tell NHTSA to pound sand or agree to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty to mitigate a behind-the-rear-axle fuel tank design that makes it vulnerable to fuel-fed fires in rear impacts.

We will not speculate. We have, however, hired Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation to see if he could replicate Chrysler’s first – and less favorable, albeit more accurate – method of comparison of fire-related, fatal rear-impact crashes.  

Chrysler and the Jeep - Outlier?

So Chrysler has thrown down the gauntlet, and its claque has dutifully delivered its standing O. Atta boy, Chrysler, tell those regulators to stick it!

As usual, those opining about Chrysler’s public resistance to recalling the 1993 - 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002 -2007 Libertys for defective fuel tanks haven’t a bloody clue. And so, as usual, The Safety Record Blog will put Chrysler’s shot across the bow into its proper context.

To recap: In November 2009, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open an investigation into fuel-fed fires plaguing the early model Jeep Grand Cherokees, alleging that the plastic fuel tank's placement behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, and the lack of adequate shielding made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, this design resulted in 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities, CAS said. The agency granted the CAS petition in August 2010, and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis. Two weeks ago, NHTSA announced that it had requested that Chrysler recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002 -2007 Liberty and was ready to go to an Initial Decision hearing if Chrysler refused.

So far, Chrysler has refused. Its preliminary defense was laid out in a “White Paper” (see NHTSA Drops Hammer on Chrysler Jeeps) Yes, it was written on virtual white paper. But we expected something a little more detailed than a three-page press release and a chart with writing so tiny, one needs to blow it up 500 percent to read it. Its basic argument is, and has always been, this: The Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Jeep Liberty met the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301 fuel tank integrity at the time, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty, statistically are not outliers for rear-impact fuel-fed fires. (Chrysler has until next Tuesday to file its official response.) 

Sounds reasonable, no? Let’s unpack it.

Jeep Fire Advocacy Heats up While Investigation Stalls

How much is your conscience worth? Jenelle Embrey figures it at about $2,000 a month. That is roughly her monthly out-of-pocket cost for three billboards in the Frederick County, Virginia area, depicting a Jeep Grand Cherokee engulfed by flames and the plea: “Help Save Innocent Families Change.org/Dangerous Jeeps."

The Linden, Virginia woman, who works as a medical transcriptionist and a bookkeeper, is hoping that the graphic depictions will drive motorists to sign her online petition at change.org demanding that Chrysler recall the 1993 -2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees to correct a design that sites the plastic gas tank behind the rear axle, where it is vulnerable to fuel fires in rear-impact crashes. As of this morning, she had collected nearly 3,355 signatures.

 “I worked five years at my part time job, and I was at the point where I thought:  ‘It’s time to let go of the second job.’ Then the accident happened, and I said: ‘I’m going to hold on to it to fund my Jeep campaign,’” Embrey says. “It’s insane that they are still on the road. [Chrysler] knows they are faulty.”

The Jeep Grand Cherokees have been under the scrutiny of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since November 2009, when the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the agency to open an investigation into fuel-fed fires in Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 1992-2008 model years. The advocacy group charged that the plastic fuel tank's placement behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, and the lack of adequate shielding – similar in design to the infamous Ford Pinto – made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, this design resulted in 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities, CAS said. The agency granted the CAS petition in August 2010, and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis; it remains open.

Today, the Center for Auto Safety sent another letter to Chrysler Chairman Sergio Marchionne and John Elkann, Chairman of parent company, Fiat Spa, calling on the company to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys. The letter was an emotional appeal, featuring the photos of toddlers and small children, who are among the occupants who have died in rear impact fire-involved crashes.  CAS cited 349 fatal fire crashes of 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys that have resulted in 478 deaths, at least 157 of which are deaths due to fire.

NHTSA Wobbles to Congress on Shaky Jeep Issue

The YouTube videos say it all: a Jeep Wrangler vibrating so intensely, a bystander can see the front wheels plainly shimmy. Inside the vehicle, another Wrangler owner demonstrates the steering wheel shaking with such force that the driver has a death grip to keep control of the vehicle, but don’t worry, NHTSA told two U.S. Reps., it’s not a safety hazard.

Hapless Wrangler owners have dubbed it the “Jeep Death Wobble,” and some journalists who have reported on the phenomenon have been more than happy to give this snappy name some play. The problem caught the attention of Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and California Rep Anna Eshoo, who last week released a letter they wrote to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, urging the company to do more to educate consumers and dealers alike about the problem and its remedies:

“Chrysler should undertake an outreach campaign to its customers, such as a Customer Satisfaction Campaign, to notify Jeep owners of the risk of the "wobble" condition, also described as a "vibration" or "shimmy," and the possible methods for repairing and preventing the problem. Such a notification could alert owners to the existence of Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) that advise dealers how to diagnose and make repairs to address this issue, emphasize the degree to which aftermarket modifications might affect or exacerbate the wobble problem, and advise customers how to stop the wobble if they experience it while driving.”

Apparently the five Technical Service Bulletins that Chrysler already issued relating to the problem were not enough. And apparently, Waxman and Eshoo turned to Chrysler, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had already turned them away.

Better Consumer Protection in China?

China may be better known for afflicting consumers with shoddy products than protecting them from shoddy products, but if you own a newish Jeep Wrangler, apparently you’re better off if your vehicle is registered in Beijing rather than Boston.

In November 2011, the Chinese government strongly suggested that Chrysler recall its 2008 – 2010 Jeep Wrangler models because the skid plate and exhaust configuration allowed debris to collect in the undercarriage of the vehicle while off- roading, allowing the catalytic converter to ignite the dried grass. The recommendation came after consumers filed three fire complaints in the month of October alone. Chrysler tried to argue that only the 2010 MY Wrangler possessed uniquely defective underbody conditions, but the Chinese government lit a fire under the automaker to recall the 2008 and 2009 model years as well. Owners of those Jeep Wranglers got the skid plate replaced by the new skid bar, which didn’t allow debris to accumulate.

So what happens if you are Rob Pyrock of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the owner of a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon? You don’t know anything about the Chinese Wrangler recall, but two months later, your Wrangler vehicle catches fire after a trip across a meadow, according to some fine reporting by WCNC’s Bill McGinty.

Fuel Spit-back Continues to Plague Chrysler Vehicles, Owners on the Hook

Fuel “spit-back” through the filler neck has been a longstanding problem in several Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models, caused by the Inlet Check Valve (ICV) mounted in the fuel tank. Despite some limited recalls and at least one extended lifetime warranty, this defect, which first surfaced in 2001, continues to plague a number of models. Tens of thousands of vehicles are outside of any campaign, forcing owners to pay for a repair that requires replacement of the entire tank assembly.

Numerous Dodge Durango owners have complained to NHTSA and Chrysler. Others have commiserated about “spit back” on Internet blogs and enthusiast websites, and posted dramatic video footage showing geysers of gasoline or significant fuel dumps into the concrete around the pump.

The video below was captured by David Trebacz, the owner of a 2007 Dodge Durango.

“I don’t where I got the nerve, but it sure felt good.”

So says Christina Catalano, after her brief confrontation with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marcchione at a dinner yesterday night sponsored by Automotive News World Congress, as part of the North America International Auto Show in Detroit.

Catalano is the daughter of Linda Catalano who died on August 3, 2008.  The 55-year-old mother and grandmother had completed a garage sale and had left her home several blocks away to collect the remaining sale signs along the road.  She evidently stopped the vehicle along the roadway to pick up a sign.  She placed her vehicle into what she must have believed to be Park and opened the door and stepped out of the Chrysler Mini-Van to pick up her signs, with the engine running and the driver’s side door open.  The vehicle then “self-shifted” into reverse, knocking Catalano to the ground and dragging her underneath the left front tire, where it pinned her.

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