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Consumer Group Urges Recall of Jeep Grand Cherokees for possible fire risk

October 7, 2009 – A consumer advocacy group says that three million Jeep Grand Cherokees have a potential fire danger from their gas tanks which is so high that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should order a recall.

Grand Cherokees from the 1993 through 2004 model years have “a fatal crash-fire occurrence rate that is about four times higher than SUV’s made by other companies,” Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, wrote in the request to the NHTSA.

Mr. Ditlow told the agency his search of its Fatality Analysis Reporting System found 172 fatal fire crashes resulting in 254 deaths between 1992, when the Grand Cherokee was introduced, and 2008. He said that included 44 crashes that resulted in 64 deaths in which investigators said the “most harmful event” causing the deaths was fire. Nearly all of the fires and fatalities occurred in Grand Cherokees made before the 2005 model year.

The NHTSA began investigating the gas-tank fire hazard of the 1971-’76 Ford Pinto on the basis of far fewer crashes, the petition said.

Mike Palese, a Chrysler spokesman, said that the Grand Cherokee provided safe transportation and that it met or exceeded federal safety standards. He said it was irresponsible and misleading to attack the Grand Cherokee based on information from the federal analysis reporting system, because those reports did not include all of the necessary information about crashes. “It is raw accident data,” he said.

A spokesman for NHTSA could not be immediately reached for comment.

The NHTSA’s website says the reporting system gets its information from sources including police and medical reports. Those files show information ranging from the points of impact to the primary cause of deaths, including fire.

In a statement, Mr. Palese of Chrysler said: “While we design our vehicles to protect the greatest number of motorists in the greatest number of accidents, unfortunately accidents do occur, can be dangerous and, sadly, can sometimes cause injuries and even deaths.  Statistically, rear impacts that result in serious injury are rare occurrences. Chrysler Group is confident that a proper study which considered all factors in all collisions, including rear collisions with fire, would show that the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees perform as well as or better than other vehicles in their class.”

Typically, the NHTSA begins defect investigations based on consumer complaints or its own research. But individuals and organizations can submit a petition requesting a defect investigation that could lead to a recall. The NHTSA then decides whether an investigation is warranted.

The Center for Auto Safety’s petition says the plastic fuel tank on 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees is not adequately protected from a rear impact because it is behind the rear axle. The petition quotes a study by the Motor Vehicle Fire Research Institute of Charlottesville, Va., that found a bolt for the rear sway bar was a little more than a inch away from the gas tank. That means it could easily be punctured in a crash, Mr. Ditlow asserted.

An optional Jeep skid plate to cover the gas tank and protect it during off-road driving reduces the danger, according to the petition.

The petition also says that the plastic gas tank “degrades over time,” making leaks more likely, and that the fuel-filler neck can be torn off in crashes.

“The design is so bad that Chrysler frequently settles lawsuits without extensive discovery and subject to confidentiality agreements,” the petition says.

When the automaker underwent a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization earlier this year it asked the judge to give it immunity from any future product liability suits filed by people who had already bought its vehicles. Although consumer advocacy groups protested, the judge approved that request. Later, as consumer groups lobbied Congress for help, Chrysler announced that it had reconsidered and would accept legal responsibility for those vehicles.

When the Grand Cherokee was redesigned for the 2005 model year, the fuel tank was put in front of the rear axle, the petition says.

“Since the relocation of the fuel tank in 2005 and later Grand Cherokees, there has only been one fatal fire crash in the redesigned vehicle,” the petition stated. “And that fire occurred after both occupants had been ejected in a rollover of a 2008 Grand Cherokee, so that the deaths were not caused by fire.”

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