Thursday, June 21, 2012

Jeep Cherokee Fuel Tank Fires

Federal safety investigators are expanding a government probe into whether fuel tanks in 5.1 million Chrysler SUVs pose a serious fire risk.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation — opened in August 2010 to look at 3 million 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees — has been expanded to cover more than 5 million vehicles, including the 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokee and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty.
In its notice, NHTSA also said it was upgrading its preliminary investigation to an engineering analysis. At the conclusion of its analysis, the agency can demand an automaker recall unsafe vehicles or close it without taking any action.
The investigation covers a total of 5.1 million vehicles. NHTSA said in a postiing on its website early this morning that it has reports of 15 deaths and 41 injuries from rear impact crashes linked to fuel tanks.
NHTSA says its analysis that has compared non-Chrysler models shows "a higher incidence of rear-impact, fatal fire crashes for the Jeep products." NHTSA said its investigation has focused on the fact that "the fuel tank is located at the rear of the vehicle, between the bumper and axle, and is manufactured from a plastic material."
David Dillon, Chrysler's head of product investigations and campaigns, said in an interview Wednesday that the company believes its SUVs do not pose a higher risk of fire than its competitors. The company says they are "neither defective nor do their fuel systems pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety."
Dillon said Chrysler's investigation shows that the gas tank placement is not a safety issue. "Those vehicles essentially are performing the same as their peers," Dillon said, acknowledging that the "Grand Cherokee may have more of these events than their competitors."

Placement of fuel tank at issue

NHTSA opened its initial investigation in response to a petition filed by the Center for Auto Safety in October 2009.

The center contends the plastic fuel tank's placement, behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, makes it more prone to rupture or leak when hit from behind — or in the case of rollover crashes, when it hits other objects. Chrysler moved the gas tank inside the frame starting in the 2005 model year.

Dillon said the company increased the vehicles' wheelbase and moved the spare tire. As a result, it moved the gas tank between the axles, but no safety issue led to the change, Dillon said.
"We're quite confident that once NHTSA takes the opportunity to complete a more thorough statistical analysis — the Grand Cherokee and the other vehicles — the data will prove that these vehicles are no more likely to experience this condition than their peer vehicles," Dillon said.
Chrysler reviewed 21,000 rear impacts in its vehicles and their peers, and found no increased safety risk.
The number of fatal vehicle fires in 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees is about four times higher than for SUVs made by other companies, the Center for Auto Safety alleged. Grand Cherokees in those model years have a fatal fire rate six times that of newer models, the petition claimed.
During its 22-month investigation, NHTSA compared Chrysler fire claims to SUVs built by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., and Toyota Motor Corp.
The center cited government records showing 185 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities involving the Jeep Grand Cherokee from calendar years 1992 through 2008.
Dillon said that figure "is all fatal fire accidents," not specific to the rear impacts or the fuel tanks.
The key issue that NHTSA must determine is whether the fires caused by high-speed rear impacts are a function of a bad design, or whether the crashes would have caused fires no matter where the gas tank was located.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, has publicly called on Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne to recall the Grand Cherokees, asserting that they have "claimed far more lives than the infamous Ford Pinto."
In a November 2011 letter, Ditlow pointed to recent fires in Grand Cherokees and urged Chrysler to act.
"The tragic question is how many more fatal fire crashes will it take before Chrysler recalls this Pinto for soccer moms," he wrote. "How many more people will be killed and tragically burned in Grand Cherokee fire crashes before Chrysler agrees to a recall?"
Chrysler responded last September with a letter from Dillon.
"The vehicles' fuel-system performance has been closely monitored in the field over the past 19 years with over 300 billion miles driven by these vehicles," Dillon wrote. "Rear impacts resulting in fire are extremely rare."
Chrysler attributes the deaths to very high-speed collisions and not to a "design or manufacturing defect in the fuel system."
The center said fire was listed as the predominant factor or "most harmful event" in at least 64 total fatalities since 1992, in Jeeps and other vehicles.
The Consumers Union and safety advocate Ralph Nader founded the Center for Auto Safety in 1970 "to provide consumers a voice for auto safety and quality in Washington and to help lemon owners fight back across the country."
The 69-page petition the group filed in 2009 said "the design is so bad that Chrysler frequently settles lawsuits without extensive discovery and subject to confidentiality agreements."
Chrysler didn't dispute it settles some lawsuits with confidential settlements, but said there was nothing improper about that.
The center cited four accidents in Michigan involving six deaths stemming from fires in Jeep Grand Cherokee crashes.

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