According to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, the Takata airbag inflator defect is not the most lethal vehicle safety issue. Ditlow says the major safety issue is “the fuel tank behind the rear axle in the 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 1993-01 Cherokee and 2002-07 Liberty.” The plastic gas tanks can rupture in a crash, spilling gasoline, and bursting into flames.
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. Before the recall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) counted 75 deaths in fiery crashes, the Chicago Tribune reports.
In a recent letter to Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and 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 Tribune reports.
Ditlow’s letter calls on officials to reopen the fuel tank investigation and come up with an effective fix for the problem. The current remedy-installing a trailer hitch on the Jeeps to keep the gas tank from being penetrated in a rear-end crash-has not been determined to be effective, Ditlow says.
Ditlow’s letter highlights three recent deaths in Jeep fires, those of 17-year-old Skyler Anderson and husband and wife Chantae and Danny Reed Jr. At the Chrysler recall hearings, Skyler’s father told NHTSA that he did not get a recall notice for the Jeep 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 of them burned to death as Chantae tried to free her husband, according to ConsumerAffairs.com.
The son of a Pennsylvania couple who died in a 2014 Jeep fire, filed suit against Fiat Chrysler in January, 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 they were not informed by Fiat Chrysler 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.
After refusing NHTSA’s initial request for a recall, FCA eventually negotiated a secret deal with former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is now an industry lobbyist, ConsumerAffairs reports. Owners of the recalled Jeeps have complained that dealers have said they do not have the necessary parts to make the repairs. And critics say FCA has not shown that installing a trailer hitch will prevent a gas tank rupture.
In July 2015, Fiat Chrysler agreed to offer a trade-in or to pay to have the hitches installed, but by the end of 2015, only 35 percent of the recalled Jeeps had been repaired. FCA has not reached more than half a million other owners, 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.