NHTSA closes probe into fire risks in older Jeep Grand Cherokee, Liberty vehicles

Article by Anita Panait, on January 20, 2014

The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has closed its probe into fire risks in 2.7 million older Jeep vehicles. The closure of the probe effectively ended a rare public standoff between US regulators and the carmaker over whether a safety recall is justified.

In spring 2013, NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 1992 to 2004 as well as Jeep Libertys from model years 2002 to 2007, saying the vehicles have an increased risk of catching fire since their gasoline tanks were mounted behind the rear axle.

In NHTSA’s letter to Chrysler dated June 3, 2013, the agency said its investigation revealed a number of fire-related deaths and injuries. NHTSA remarked that its defect investigation office believes that the concerned vehicles "contain defects related to motor vehicle safety."

Chrysler, however, refused to recall the vehicles in June. In a statement, Chrysler said it does not agree with NHTSA's conclusions, adding that the vehicles concerned are “safe and are not defective."

The carmaker remarked that it has been sharing data on the issue with the agency since September 2010. Chrysler said in the statement that it believes NHTSA's initial conclusions are founded on an “incomplete analysis of the underlying data,” adding that it is committed to continue working with the agency to resolve the disagreement.

In a related document, Chrysler claimed that its analysis showed fire incidents entailing the vehicles occurred "less than one time for every million years of vehicle operation."

However, weeks after refusal to recall the concerned vehicles, Chrysler reversed itself and agreed to install trailer hitches on some of the vehicles for additional crash protection. NHTSA said in a statement that it had "no reservations" about Chrysler's plans, despite the carmaker’s admission that a trailer hitch would not protect against the high-speed, high-impact crashes that usually result to fires.

"Throughout this process, the agency has been in close communication with Chrysler and has no reservations at this time with their announced actions to move forward,” NHTSA said, adding that consumers should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive final notification from Chrysler. The regulator said that it will continue to monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues.

NHTSA also said it will formally conclude its probe "in the coming weeks" by publishing a final analysis of the Jeep vehicles. Chrysler has insisted that the SUVs in question complied with all safety standards when they were sold, and that the decision to install the fuel tank behind the rear axle is not a defect that justifies a recall. "Chrysler Group commends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the diligence demonstrated over the course of this investigation," the carmaker said in a statement.

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