Washington — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said its dealers have repaired less than a quarter of 1.56 million older Jeep SUVs recalled for fire risks nearly two years after agreeing to recall them, and is urging dealers to speed up repairs.
The letter came after National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Mark Rosekind told reporters last week he was not happy with the pace of recalls and said he was considering reopening the government's investigation into at least 50 fires linked to rear gas tank collisions in older Jeep SUVs. It came after a Georgia jury found Fiat Chrysler at fault in a gas tank fire in a 1999 Jeep SUV that killed a 4-year-old boy and awarded his family $150 million.
The letter to dealers was posted by NHTSA on Tuesday. It said 27 percent of the Jeep Liberty SUVs and 4 percent of the Jeep Grand Cherokees have been repaired — far fewer than the 72 percent of vehicles repaired within two years in average recalls. But recall completion rates of older vehicles generally lag campaigns for newer campaigns.
Under government pressure after the crash, Fiat Chrysler recalled an estimated 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs for the problem in June 2013. As a fix, it agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks, which are vulnerable because of their location between the rear axle and the bumper. The company sent letters to 2.27 million owners, though it isn't clear how many are still on the road.
In addition, the company agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees, including the one in the Georgia crash.
NHTSA could try to require Fiat Chrysler to formally declare the vehicles defective or convert the vehicles in the customer service campaign to a formal recall. "All of that is being considered," Rosekind said.
NHTSA has repeatedly criticized the automaker for the slow pace of fixes; the company didn't start installing the protective hitches until August 2014, more than a year after they agreed to the recall.
Fiat Chrysler told its dealers it is making "every effort" to convince owners to get their vehicles repaired. The automaker said it has made improvements to the parts availability to get the recalls completed. "If there are barriers that are preventing your dealership from completing these important repairs, please contact your factory representative for assistance. FCA wants to know and will make every effort to eliminate any barriers," the company letter said.
NHTSA issued a consumer advisory in November that urged owners of the recalled Jeeps to get them fixed immediately. The letter came days after a 23-year-old pregnant woman from Ferndale was killed in a fiery crash on the Lodge freeway in a recalled 2003 Jeep Liberty. Kayla White was killed when her Jeep was struck from behind at high speed, causing it to overturn and catch fire. She died of burns and smoke inhalation, an autopsy found.
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