June 18, 2014 at 3:40 pm

NHTSA investigating 1.2M Chrysler vehicles for ignition failures

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan (Chrysler)

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations said Wednesday it is opening two investigations into 1.2 million Chrysler vehicles because of reports that a driver’s knee can move the ignition switch out of the “run” position, causing the vehicles to stall and disabling the air bags.

The problem is similar to the issue that rocked General Motors Co. after it failed to recall 2.6 million vehicles linked to 13 deaths when air bags failed to deploy after vehicles stalled. GM has recalled nearly 4 million other vehicles since Friday for other ignition switch problems.

Chrysler has received hundreds of complaints for stalling linked to the defect, but there are no reports of fatalities or injuries linked to nondeployment of air bags.

NHTSA said it is investigating 700,000 2008-10 Grand Caravan, Town and Country and Journey minivans because of stalling complaints. Drivers say that on rough roads or when bumped, the key can rotate from “run” to “accessory” mode, causing the engine to shut down.

Separately, NHTSA is investigating 525,000 2006-07 Jeep Commanders and 2005-06 Jeep Grand Cherokees after 32 complaints allege the driver’s knee can contact the key fob or key chain and cause the ignition to be turned off.

“If this occurs, the vehicle’s air bags may not deploy in the event of a frontal crash,” NHTSA said of both investigations.

NHTSA said it has 23 complaints but no reports of deaths or injuries in the minivan investigation; it also had reports of at least two rear-end crashes after vehicles stalled. “NHTSA is not aware of any related incidents involving airbag non-deployments at this time,” the agency said.

Chrysler said in a statement it will cooperate and has launched an internal investigation.

The new investigations were prompted by NHTSA’s broad look at air bags, and talks with automakers and suppliers about air bag design and performance — including whether air bags in other vehicles are disabled if the ignition switch is turned off.

“According to Chrysler, when the vehicle is initially started and the ignition key is released from the start position, a spring force rotates the key back to the run position. However, in some instances, the switch may over-travel, leaving the ignition key between the run and (accessory) position. While in this intermediate position, harsh roadway conditions or driver interaction with the ignition key can cause the switch to move to the (accessory) position which may disable the frontal air bags in a crash where deployment is warranted,” NHTSA said.

In March 2011, Chrysler recalled 197,000 2010 Dodge Journeys, Grand Caravans and Chrysler Town & Countrys for inadvertent ignition key rotation. It said after 465 warranty complaints that it was replacing the wireless ignition node module, or ignition switch, built by Continental AG. The recall made no mention of the fact that the defect could prompt the air bags to not inflate.

Chrysler estimated the problem affected 3 percent of vehicles. But then Chrysler in June 2011 opted on a different remedy: to add a detent ring to the switch to make it stiffer — a faster fix, the company told NHTSA.

NHTSA said a review of complaints identified a number of owners alleging that model-year 2008-09 vehicles may have a similar defect as the 2010 vehicles. In addition, NHTSA said, some owners of 2010 models have reported they have experienced the same problem after the fix was made.

In a related recall, Volkswagen AG recalled 12,600 2010 VW Routan minivans for the same issue. The vehicles were built by Chrysler for VW. It is unclear if NHTSA’s investigation also covers the VW vans. A NHTSA spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment.