Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, says, “The most lethal vehicle safety defect in America today is not the Takata airbag inflator. It’s the fuel tank behind the rear axle in the 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 1993-01 Cherokee and 2002-07 Liberty.”
At least 19 people have been burned to death in Jeep SUVs since June 2013 when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) was first asked to recall Jeep models that have the gas tank mounted behind the rear axle, ConsumerAffairs.com reports. The plastic gas tanks can rupture in a crash, spilling gasoline, and bursting into flames.
In a recent letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) head Mark Rosekind, Ditlow wrote, “This is the recall that Chrysler never wanted to do and will never do right. As far as Fiat-Chrysler is concerned Jeeps can continue to crash and burn until they are all off the road.” NHTSA has fined Fiat Chrysler a total of $175 million in the past two years for moving too slowly on recalls or failing to report safety defects and deaths, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Ditlow is calling on officials to reopen the fuel tank investigation and come up with a remedy that saves lives, according to ConsumerAffairs.com. Ditlow’s letter highlighted three recent deaths in Jeep fires: 17-year-old Skyler Anderson and 24-year-old husband and wife Chantae and Danny Reed Jr. Skyler’s father told NHTSA at the Chrysler recall hearings that didn’t get a recall notice until more than a year after Chrysler agreed to a limited recall. The Reeds survived the crash of their Jeep, but Danny Reed was trapped when his seat back collapsed and both burned to death as Chantae tried to free her husband.
In January, the son of a Pennsylvania couple who died in a 2014 Jeep fire sued Fiat Chrysler, alleging that the Jeep was unsafe “due to its propensity to burst into flames after rear impacts.” The lawsuit also says the couple’s Jeep was part of the recall, but Fiat Chrysler did not inform them of this before the crash. They bought the vehicle used from another person. Last year, a Georgia jury awarded $150 million to the family of a 4-year-old who died in fire involving a 1999 Grand Cherokee. A judge reduced the award to $40 million and Fiat Chrysler has appealed, the Tribune reports.
FCA initially refused NHTSA’s recall request but finally negotiated a secret deal with former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, now an industry lobbyist. That deal calls for installing a trailer hitch on the Jeeps to keep the gas tank from being penetrated in a rear-end crash and exploding into flames, according to ConsumerAffairs.com. But consumers complain that dealers have told them they do not have the necessary parts. Further, critics maintain that installing a trailer hitch has never been demonstrated to be an effective remedy.
Last July, Fiat Chrysler, agreed to make trade-in offers to the Jeep owners or pay to have the hitches installed. By the end of 2015, only 35 percent of the recalled Jeeps had been repaired. Another 545,000 owners cannot be reached, or their vehicles have been scrapped, according to a report Fiat Chrysler filed with the government. A company spokesman said the company has made 15.3 million attempts to reach owners by mail, telephone calls or email, according to the Tribune.