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Chrysler Is Offering Repairs for 1.6-Million Vehicles After Driver Complaints About Sliding Gears

Feb 15, 2002 | Los Angeles Times

Chrysler announced the recall of 1.6-million Jeep Grand Cherokee sport utility vehicles Thursday in response to a series of accidents in which the vehicles unexpectedly lurched into reverse, causing at least five deaths and more than 150 injuries.

A federal safety agency investigating the problem had received more than 700 complaints from owners of the popular SUVs, who reported that their Grand Cherokees could slip into reverse when the gearshift appeared to be in the "park" position. In most cases, the engine was running.

The broad recall covers Grand Cherokees produced from 1993 to 1998. The Chrysler Group, a unit of DaimlerChrysler Corp. said its dealers will install an additional part in the floor shifter mechanism to prevent the problem, at no cost to consumers.

"Although there are several ways for Jeep Grand Cherokee owners to assure their vehicle is in park, this improvement will provide one more way to assist customers by making it more difficult for a driver to fail to put the gear shifter fully in park," said Matt Reynolds, Chrysler's safety director. The company said it continues to think the vehicles are not defective.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the Grand Cherokee this summer, after the Los Angeles Times contacted the agency about a number of complaints from consumers.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said the safety agency will continue to investigate 1999-2001 Grand Cherokees. The government has received 174 complaints about these later-model Jeeps, including 61 reported crashes and 32 injuries.

"We are going to keep the investigation open on the newer vehicles just to make sure there isn't a problem there as well," Tyson said.

Chrysler spokesman Mike Rosenau contended that the complaint rate for those vehicles is not significantly different than for similar SUVs built by other manufacturers. He said the 1999-2001 models have a safeguard similar to the one that will be installed in the earlier models.

Rosenau said it will be several months before Chrysler can produce sufficient quantities of the new part to begin repairs, but that the company is sending out an immediate notice to Grand Cherokee owners, with tips on how to make sure their vehicles are securely parked. Turning the engine off, removing the ignition key and setting the parking brake should prevent the problem, according to safety experts.

NHTSA will monitor the recall to make sure the company follows through.

"I sure hope that what they are doing will correct this defect," said a New Jersey lawyer whose daughter, Linda Haller, was crushed to death by her Grand Cherokee in 1998. "I don't want to pick up the newspaper again and read about anyone getting hurt because their car went from park into reverse." Haller's family is suing DaimlerChrysler.

Simon Tamny, an Ohio engineer who has testified for several plaintiffs against the company, said the fix announced by Chrysler "is a step in the right direction."

The fix that Chrysler is proposing will not replace that internal component, commonly called a "rooster comb."

Instead, Rosenau said, the company will install a new part in the gearshift mechanism. This part is designed to eliminate chances that the transmission could come to a rest between park and reverse. "It has a very acute point between park and reverse, so there will be no ambiguity for drivers," said Rosenau.

Until now, Chrysler had steadfastly resisted a recall, saying it thought drivers who inadvertently left the Grand Cherokees in reverse were to blame. Safety director Reynolds asserted Thursday that "the investigation did not identify any defect in the vehicle."

"Why would you do this if there is no defect?" Tamny asked. "It's not as if this is something that's cost-free." The company said it was acting to resolve consumer concerns.

But according to NHTSA documents, its investigators became quickly convinced that something was indeed wrong. Last July, when the probe was in its early stages, agency engineer Peter Kivett, the lead investigator on the case, test drove a Grand Cherokee that a consumer had complained about.

"The investigator was able to duplicate the complaint," said a NHTSA report. "The vehicle engaged reverse while it was in the park position. . . . A total of three park-to-reverse failures occurred."

Safety officials also found that the rate of consumer complaints involving Grand Cherokees that rolled away in reverse was more than five times greater than for the nearest SUV built by a competitor. In November, the agency intensified its investigation.

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