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NHTSA urges Chrysler speed Jeep fixes

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The deputy chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said he sent an urgent letter to Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne on Thursday, demanding the automaker improve its efforts to fix 1.56 million Jeep SUVs at risk of gas tank fires in a rear-end collision.

Chrysler recalled an estimated 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Libertys and 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees for the problem in June 2013, and agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. But the automaker didn't start fixing them until August of this year.

"They've got to get their act in gear," NHTSA's David Friedman told reporters Thursday after a Senate hearing on auto safety. "They've got to make sure that they are getting those parts in the hands of consumers. They've told us that they have nearly 400,000 parts, and yet we're getting complaints from consumers saying the dealers are telling them there aren't any parts."

It's the latest battle between Chrysler and NHTSA over the pace of recall fixes.

Late Thursday, NHTSA issued a consumer advisory urging owners of the recalled Jeeps to get them fixed immediately. Gas tanks on the older Jeeps are located below the rear bumper and behind the rear axle, and can rupture and leak gasoline if the SUVs are rear-ended. The fix that NHTSA called for involves installation of a trailer hitch to protect the gas tank.

However, the agency acknowledged Thursday that trailer hitches will not offer additional protection in high-speed crashes. It said its investigation found hitches provide incremental safety benefits in certain low- and moderate-speed crashes. Chrysler has said since 2013 that the fix would not address high-speed crashes in which most of the reported deaths have occurred.

The highway safety agency says at least 32 rear-impact fire crashes involving the Grand Cherokees have resulted in 44 deaths, and at least five rear-impact crashes involving the Liberty have resulted in seven fatalities.

The letter from NHTSA came the week 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, causing it to overturn and catch fire. She died of burns and smoke inhalation, an autopsy found.

"It's an utter tragedy," Friedman told reporters, saying the agency is still gathering information about the crash and hasn't reached a determination.

The letter doesn't mention her death, but demands Chrysler respond within 15 days to explain why it is turning away some owners for repairs. It blasts Chrysler's "woeful" 3 percent completion rate. NHTSA tells Chrysler that because low repair rates more than a year after the recall, "significantly more aggressive steps are required."

Gerald Thurswell, the Southfield attorney representing family members of White who are pursing a lawsuit against Chrysler, said the automaker knows owners of recalled Jeeps are carrying explosive devices in their cars. He declined to specifically talk about the investigation or White's case on Thursday.

"What are you supposed to to do if you are driving your children to school tomorrow, what are you are supposed to do if you have to drive to work?" Thurswell asked. "People don't have the luxury of driving another car. They don't have the money to rent another car."

Friedman's letter said the agency recently shared ideas on how Chrysler could speed repairs. It said the automaker must assure there are no barriers to dealers getting trailer hitches. "Chrysler must correct the reported practice of some dealers telling customers that no parts are available," Friedman wrote.

Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said Thursday the company has 488,000 trailer hitches in stock — and 137,000 owners either have had vehicles fixed or been released from the recall. He said Chrysler "is further intensifying its outreach to customers to encourage them to schedule service," adding it has redoubled efforts to ensure dealers stock a sufficient inventory of parts to deliver quick service.

Jeeps that already have factory-installed or Mopar hitches won't need to get new ones, but those without a hitch or with non-factory hitches will.

Some owners have complained that they can't get repairs if they have too much rust or the back of the SUV isn't strong enough to install the hitch.

"NHTSA is aware of reports that some vehicles subject to the recall were not able to be repaired because of excessive rust on the vehicles' frames," the letter said. "This is of great concern, as it suggests that at least some vehicle owners are being turned away from dealerships without repairs, because their vehicles are not in a good enough condition to be repaired, and they are unable to pay the significant costs for new hardware that would be required to complete the repair. As we have reiterated to Chrysler, we believe the repair of these vehicles is of critical importance and must be completed in order for drivers and passengers to be adequately protected."

Friedman wants to ensure "specific criteria that are being used to determine the condition sufficient for the repair are being uniformly applied." He also wants Chrysler to answer within 15 days that its dealers are giving accurate information.

Chrysler announced the recall covered an estimated 1.56 million Jeeps in June 2013 out of an initial production of more than 2.4 million vehicles, citing the age of the vehicles. In an abundance of caution, Chrysler sent letters to 2.27 million owners, though it is not clear how many of the Jeeps are still on the road. Chrysler notes that the vehicles met safety requirements at the time the vehicles were built and insists they are not defective.

The company also agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees. Chrysler will replace non-factory-installed trailer hitches in order to make sure that sharp edges from aftermarket hitches don't have the potential to puncture gas tanks. It will not, however, install hitches for those vehicles that don't already have them.

NHTSA has been clashing with Chrysler over a number of safety issues.

In October, it launched an investigation into Chrysler's recall of nearly 1 million Dodge Ram trucks for steering issues, prompted by more than 1,000 complaints from owners seeking faster repairs.

And Friedman said Thursday it was unacceptable that Chrysler isn't starting until next month its repair of 371,000 vehicles for potentially defective Takata air bags that were recalled in June.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com