— The nonprofit Center for Auto Safety (CAS) is calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to reopen an investigation into Jeep gas tank fires.
CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow said based on continued fire deaths, the government should reopen a gas tank defect investigation into the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 1993-2001 Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty.
Chrysler has always stood fast in denying a problem with the SUVs by saying "analysis of the data confirms that these vehicles are not defective and are among the safest in the peer group." Further, the automaker says at the time of manufacturing, every Jeep met all federal safety standards.
However, the Center says millions of Jeeps have been on the roads for years and all the SUVs are at risk because of the location of the gas tank. The tank is located behind the rear axle, an area susceptible to rupture when a Jeep is hit from behind.
Jeep's Slow and Reluctant Recall
In May 2013, CAS sent a letter to NHTSA requesting the recall of millions of Jeeps for gas tank fire hazards. That request occurred almost a year after the government upgraded an investigation into rear-impact fires in the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokee and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty.
NHTSA eventually asked Chrysler to recall the SUVs in June 2013, and according to the Center, there have been 47 fire deaths in the 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty since that recall date.
In June 2013, Chrysler relented and recalled 1.5 million Jeeps to install trailer hitches to the rear of the SUVs. Although asked to recall 2.7 million Jeeps, Chrysler said it would agree to "fix" 1.5 million Jeeps.
By July 2014, Chrysler said it was finally ready to begin installing trailer hitches on 1.5 million Jeeps, but the ordeal could take two more years to complete.
Although the trailer hitch agreement was put in place, certain conditions must be met before a brand new hitch is installed.
If a Jeep already has an aftermarket hitch, Chrysler will inspect the area of the hitch to look for sharp edges or other areas that can cause puncture damage. A new trailer hitch might be installed based on the results of the inspection.
For an SUV that doesn't have a hitch, one will be installed as long as the Jeep can support proper installation, so problems such as rust could put a damper on any repairs.
If the Jeep has a Chrysler-made trailer hitch already installed, dealers will inspect the area around the tow hitch installation and if any issues are identified, they will be repaired.
How Effective is Jeep's Fix?
Either way, safety advocates argue it won't make much difference because some of the fatal fires have occurred in SUVs already equipped with tow hitches. In addition, the trailer hitch idea might help protect the gas tank in a slow-speed rear-end crash, but could be meaningless in a high-speed impact.
In July 2014, NHTSA released results of its study that was conducted to learn how well a Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty trailer (tow) hitch will help protect the gas tanks.
NHTSA said using an original equipment Chrysler tow hitch did improve protection to the gas tank during slow-speed impacts. One test replicated a real-world crash to determine the effect of using a tow ball and drawbar where NHTSA used an aftermarket drawbar installed in the hitch receiver.
The rear impact fractured the cross-member of the hitch receiver and forced the broken section into the gas tank, causing a gas leak. Then the test was conducted using only a Chrysler-made hitch receiver and no aftermarket drawbar, and this time the cross-member did not fracture and the gas tank was not punctured.
However, the overfill vent connector and charcoal vapor connector did break off the top of the fuel pump assembly. When engineers rolled the Jeep on the rollover fixture, a gas leak did occur.
NHTSA says the test indicates that using a ball-mount drawbar in the hitch receiver when the Jeep is not being used for towing increases the risk of gas tank failure in a rear impact.
The Real Impact
Included in the letter CAS sent to safety regulators to reopen an investigation is a list of deaths and injuries related to the Jeeps, including one incident that killed two people.
Chantae and Danny Reed Jr. were in their Jeep when it was struck and caught on fire. Although the couple survived the initial crash, both burned to death while trying to escape the Jeep. Mrs. Reed gave her life while trying to save her husband from the fire because he couldn't get out due to the seat back collapsing from the crash.
"As far as Fiat-Chrysler is concerned Jeeps can continue to crash and burn until they are all off the road."- Center for Auto Safety