2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

It is unusual for a carmaker to refuse a recall request made by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as Bill Vlasic writes in The New York Times. But that is what Chrysler did on Tuesday, after the agency asked it to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Liberty models. The NHTSA says the vehicles are at risk of catching on fire in rear-impact crashes.

As James R. Healey writes for USA TODAY:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent the automaker a letter late Monday asking it to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty. NHTSA says the rear-mounted gas tanks in those vehicles are too vulnerable to leaking and catching fire in a rear-end crash.

Government data show that 44 people have been killed in 32 rear-end crashes and fires involving Jeep Grand Cherokees, and seven deaths have resulted from five Jeep Liberty rear-impact fire crashes. The Grand Cherokees had a rear-end crash fire death rate of 1 per million registered vehicle years, Healey writes, and the Liberty, 0.9.

By contrast, similar SUVs sold by other companies had fatality rates of around 0.5, deeming the Jeeps “poor performers,” Healey reports the NHTSA as saying. Chrysler counters that those numbers are so small as to be statistically meaningless, and refuses to issue a recall. The company does not agree with the NHTSA that the vehicles are unsafe, Vlasic writes.

In most cases, when there is a dispute with the NHTSA, carmakers will discuss the issue quietly with regulators to reach some agreement regarding voluntary recalls, Vlasic notes. He goes on to write:

Now, Chrysler appears to be digging in to defend the quality and safety of its popular Jeep sport utility vehicles.

‘Chrysler must feel like it has a compelling reason to take such a bold stand,’ said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the car research site Edmunds.com. ‘Since Toyota was publicly humiliated for dragging its feet a few years ago, automakers have been quick to recall vehicles at N.H.T.S.A.’s request.’

The letter that the NHTSA sent to Chrysler on Monday was the most recent action in a three-year investigation by the government as to whether the location of the fuel tanks in the Jeeps puts the vehicles at risk for gasoline leaks and fires in the case of rear-end collisions, Vlasic writes.

Chrysler released a statement, saying: “We believe N.H.T.S.A.’s initial conclusions are based on an incomplete analysis of the underlying data, and we are committed to continue working with the agency to resolve this disagreement.”

The NHTSA said that if Chrysler fails to issue a recall, the agency might pursue a formal decision to label the vehicles as defective, a process which would include public hearings and the release of details from the government’s investigation, Vlasic writes.

Chrysler responded to the NHTSA that it has cooperated with regulators on “exhaustive studies” of the fuel systems in its Jeep models. The carmaker said its vehicles exceeded the U.S. standards for few system designs. It also said most of the car accidents that NHTSA cited involved high-speed collisions that were beyond the scope of fuel system safety regulations.

But NHTSA said, “The existence of a minimum standard does not require N.H.T.S.A. to ignore deadly problems.”

Vlasic writes that the government’s investigation of Jeeps came about after a request from the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The Center on Tuesday accused Chrysler of putting “profits over safety” by refusing to install equipment that could reduce the risk of crash fires.

Vlasic quotes the Center:

Chrysler would not exist today but for a $10 billion bailout loan by the U.S. government… The refusal to recall these rolling firebombs is an insult to its customers that ride at risk every day.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said, “N.H.T.S.A. hopes that Chrysler will reconsider its position and take action to protect its customers and the driving public.”

Image by RL GNZLZ (order_242).

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