The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is closing its long-running investigation into 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs over concerns that gas tanks mounted in the rear could pose a unreasonable risk of fires in rear-end crashes.
The government also is dropping its request for Chrysler Group LLC to recall the SUVs.
“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 in a statement. “Consumers should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive final notification from Chrysler. NHTSA will continue to monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues.”
The federal auto safety agency informed Chrysler of the decision late this week, officials briefed on the probe said. NHTSA’s formal closing of the investigation will come in the next few weeks with the release of a closing report.
“Chrysler Group commends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the diligence demonstrated over the course of this investigation. We share NHTSA’s commitment to safety,” the automaker said in a statement.
The decision marks a victory for Chrysler, which in June refused to issue a widespread and costly recall, which the government requested in early June.
Chrysler did, however, agree June 18 to recall 1.56 million 1992-98 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys to install some trailer hitches that would protect the gas tank.
NHTSA said in June the SUV’s gas tank could rupture and catch fire when the Jeeps in question are hit from behind. NHTSA cited reports of 51 deaths in rear-end accidents in which older Jeep gas tanks leaked and caught fire in urging a recall to fix the risk of fires.
Chrysler said last week it was still preparing to begin fixing vehicles it had agreed to recall. Last year, it estimated the cost of that recall at $151 million.
Since the recall was announced, NHTSA had continued to investigate the case, which it first opened in August 2010.
Friday’s announcement came at the end of NHTSA Administrator David Strickland’s four-year-tenure as the nation’s top auto safety regulator.
Under the announcement in June, Chrysler is also conducting a service campaign for about 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees that includes replacing aftermarket trailer hitches. But the automaker is not installing them on vehicles without hitches.
In July, Strickland disputed Chrysler’s contention that its decision to install trailer hitches on some Jeeps won’t help protect gas tanks — which are located behind the rear axle — in some high-speed crashes.
Chrysler itself, while defending the safety of the Jeeps, said the trailer hitch will not eliminate the risk caused by high-speed rear collisions. The hitch will provide “incremental improvement in the crash energy management in low- to moderate-speed rear collisions,” Chrysler said in a letter to NHTSA in June.
Chrysler said the trailer hitch assembly will protect the gas tank, which is between the rear axle and bumper, in rear-end crashes. Dealers will install the hitches. Jeeps that already have factory-installed or Mopar hitches won’t need to get a new ones, but those with neither a hitch nor a non-factory installed hitches will get new ones.
NHTSA said at least 32 fatal rear-impact fire crashes involving Grand Cherokees have resulted in 44 deaths, and at least five fatal rear-impact crashes involving the Liberty have resulted in seven fatalities. Comparing rates of incidents with similar vehicles, NHTSA said the Grand Cherokee and Liberty “are poor performers.” Chrysler said that wasn’t true.
Chrysler noted that fires happen in all vehicles after crashes. “According to NHTSA’s own data, on average, more than 40 individuals each day are exposed to a post-crash fire, and approximately four of these individuals will not survive,” Chrysler’s letter said. “While each of these cases is tragic, they would not have all been prevented by different struck vehicle designs.”
The Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit founded by safety crusader Ralph Nader and the Consumers Union, repeatedly urged Chrysler to recall the vehicles and also urged NHTSA to crash test the trailer hitch remedy.