U.S. close to decision on next step in Jeep SUV fires

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will meet this week to decide whether it will reopen its probe into 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs linked to more than 50 fires.

"It is specifically starting with the numbers, which are what we all expected — very low," NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind said Tuesday, referring to the low rate of Jeep repairs. Last week 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.

Rosekind said an announcement on the next steps on Jeep could come as early as next week, but didn't say specifically what options an internal group at NHTSA has given him.

He said earlier this month he was not happy with the pace of recalls and said he was considering reopening the government's investigation. 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.

A letter from Fiat Chrysler to dealers was posted by NHTSA last week. 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.

NHTSA is holding an event next week with automakers to look for ways to boost recall completion rates.

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.

The company also agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for 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 earlier this month.

The safety agency 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 it 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.

Separately, Rosekind said Tuesday he is not satisfied with the recall repair rates for millions of vehicles recalled for defective Takata air bags. Rosekind has a separate internal NHTSA working group looking at Takata options. The Takata group has also given Rosekind options for further actions. He expects to announce some concrete actions in the next week or two.

"Overall, we think everything's been too slow," Rosekind said.

Since Feb. 22, NHTSA has been fining Japanese air-bag maker Takata $14,000 per day for failing to fully cooperate in a long-running investigation. To date, the fines are more than $700,000.

The inflators, which are in cars made by 10 auto companies, can explode and throw metal fragments at drivers and passengers. At least six people have been killed and 64 injured worldwide.

The 10 automakers have now recalled more than 17 million vehicles in the United States for the issue. The bulk of the vehicles recalled are by Honda, which has reports of at least six deaths and 64 injuries connected to air bags exploding and sending deadly metal fragments flying.