NHTSA will not reopen Jeep SUV fire probe

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Monday it will not reopen its probe into 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs linked to more than 60 fires.

NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind told reporters on a conference call that the agency will not revisit the investigation that first began in August 2010. “We will always consider new information,” he said.

In early April, NHTSA said it was considering reopening the investigation in the face of the low rate of Jeep repairs — only about 21 percent to date. In April, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said 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.

Instead, Rosekind announced NHTSA will hold a July 2 public hearing and look at Fiat Chrysler’s conduct in 20 separate recalls including the Jeep SUV fire recalls.

Rosekind said earlier this month he was not happy with the pace of recall fixes and 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.

Rosekind told reporters that one reason for the public hearing was the fact that Fiat Chrysler dealers have only completed about 21 percent of the repairs — and repaired just 7,700 vehicles in the three months ending March 31.

A letter from Fiat Chrysler to dealers 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, 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.

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. But Rosekind on Monday said NHTSA’s testing of the hitches showed they were effective at 30 mph.

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 last month.

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 died 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.