Strickland (Harry Hamburg / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Washington – — Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland on Tuesday defended his decision to end the government’s lengthy investigation into 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs for gas tank fires, saying the agency was satisfied with Chrysler’s fix after a very extensive investigation.
“We took every step to make sure that it addressed the real-world risk and it addressed the numbers,” Strickland, who was the top U.S. auto safety regulator from early 2010 until last week, said in a Tuesday interview.
Strickland rejected claims from some safety advocates that his new job at Washington-based law firm Venable LLP — which represents Chrysler — was a factor in the agency’s decision to close the investigation that began in August 2010. He said that he was “intensely confident” in the decision to end the investigation, and noted that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also signed off on the decision.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in a statement Friday, “It is tragic that NHTSA approved Chrysler’s sham trailer hitch recall for Jeeps that explode in rear impacts. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland will be remembered as the administrator who took a job with one of Chrysler’s law firms rather than save more children like Cassidy Jarmon from burning to deaths in Jeeps with trailer hitches.”
Jarmon, 4, died in a February 2006 fire when her mother’s 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind.
Strickland noted his long record of public service dating back to his work as a Senate staffer starting in 2001 on auto safety issues. “There is probably no more passionate safety advocate than I — or a person that holds the rule of law and frankly the independence of government service and the private sector higher than I,” he said.
Under Obama administration ethics rules, Strickland is barred from lobbying his former colleagues at NHTSA for two years. He will start his new job Monday.
Strickland said NHTSA conducted some crash tests of Chrysler’s remedy of installing a trailer hitch to protect the gas tanks of 1992-98 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys in rear collisions, as as safety advocates had urged.
“It took us a lot of time to make sure that remedy actually addressed the risks that we saw,” Strickland said. He said the agency would spell out in detail its findings in about a month. “
Strickland said NHTSA “never intended” for Chrysler’s remedy to address high-speed crashes. Strickland said NHTSA had been focused on low- to moderate-speed crashes. “Somebody gets rear-ended at 70, 80 miles per hour — there’s very few vehicles that are going to do well there.”
NHTSA had warned in June that the gas tanks behind the axles of 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys can be punctured and catch fire when the SUVs are hit from the rear. 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, which moved the gas tank location in later Jeep models, said the former design was safe and that it did not intend to recall the vehicles.
Chrysler did agree, however, to to recall 1.56 million 1992-98 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys to install trailer hitches that it said would provide some protection.
Chrysler said earlier this month 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.