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.

The Center for Auto Safety had been petitioning NHTSA to get these fire-bombs-on-wheels off the road since November 2009, when it formally requested that the agency open an investigation into fuel-fed fires in Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 1992-2008 model years. The advocacy group alleged 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.

On Friday, CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow told USA Today:

“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 [sic] rather than save more children like Cassidy Jarmon from burning to deaths [sic] in Jeeps with trailer hitches.”

In August 2010, the agency granted the CAS petition and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis. Chrysler fought back hard, insisting that the Jeep Grand Cherokee was not an outlier in rear-impact crashes with fuel fed fires, and that it passed all compliance tests.

NHTSA was not persuaded. In early June 2013, NHTSA took the rare step of requesting that Chrysler recall 2.7 million 1994-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs. Six days before Chrysler would have to formally respond, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood rounded up Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne, and former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland for an ex-parte meeting in Chicago. It was there that parties hammered out a compromise. Rather than a recall, Chrysler agreed to outfit 1.5 million, 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs with trailer hitches, installed on vehicles not already so equipped “provided the condition of the vehicle can support proper installation.” Chrysler agreed to 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.”  

In closing the Engineering Analysis, the agency said that it “had no reservations” about the trailer hitch “fix.” Well that’s a reservation with a party of one.

Chrysler described it in its Defect and Non-Compliance Notice as “an incremental improvement” to safety in low-speed rear impact crashes.” And the company claimed that all of those fatal fire deaths involved severe, high-speed crashes:

“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.”

In a June 14, 2011 video deposition, retired Chrysler engineer Francois Castaing, known as “The Father of the Jeep,” emphatically tells an attorney representing the estate of Susan Kline, that “the tow package does not protect the tank.” Kline, 49, and the mother of two, died on February 27, when her 1996 Grand Cherokee was rear-ended on a New Jersey Highway and burst into flames.

Embrey, who paid 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, while collecting signatures in an online petition, says she isn’t done yet. She’s drafting another petition and is at work on a memoir about her experiences in this campaign, scheduled to go on sale in February. Any proceeds will be donated to non-profits, she says. In addition, Embrey’s hoping to attract Hollywood to this story.

“Unfortunately we are living in a time where corporate giants have more money than our government agencies. We all know that money equals power,” she says. “These latest developments have been distressing but I’m personally not done with Chrysler yet. If we can’t rely on the folks paid to protect us, sometimes we have to take things into our own hands. I have to continue spreading the word until everybody knows about this problem. People are still burning to death in dangerous Jeeps. Ask the family of 17-year-old Skyler Anderson-Couglin who caught on fire in his Jeep Cherokee just before Thanksgiving or the family of 29-year-old Reed Whittaker who burned in his Jeep Cherokee just before Christmas.”

More on Jeep rear impact fires:

Jeep Fire Advocacy Heats up While Investigation Stalls

NHTSA Drops the Hammer on Chrysler Jeeps

Chrysler and the Jeep – Outlier?

Will Chrysler stand behind the Jeep?

Crazy Ray’s Give Away!