Safety advocate asks NHTSA to reopen Jeep fire probe

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

An auto safety advocate is calling for federal officials to reopen an investigation of fires caused by rear-end crashes in older Jeeps after finding at least 11 more deaths since the vehicles were recalled.

Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Clarence Ditlow said the new fatalities should be a red flag showing that the recall campaign — which involves installing a trailer hitch to protect gas tanks — hasn’t been effective.

“The Center for Auto Safety calls on you as the Secretary of Transportation and as the administrator of NHTSA to reopen the Jeep fuel tank investigation and obtain a remedy that saves lives versus the fire deaths that will continue to occur if Fiat Chrysler is left alone,” Ditlow wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind, dated Friday.

The figures do not separate high-speed crashes from those that occur at lower speeds, which the trailer hitches were implemented to prevent, according to Ditlow. It was unclear as of Friday night how many of the vehicles involved in updated accidents were equipped with the trailer hitch fixes.

“To us, the differentiation is simply was it a fire death or wasn’t it a fire death,” he told The Detroit News.

NHTSA has acknowledged the hitches wouldn’t offer much protection in high-speed crashes. An investigation by the department found the trailer hitches provide incremental safety benefits in certain low- and moderate-speed crashes of 30 miles per hour. When struck from behind, the gas tank can be crushed between the rear bumper and axle, and rupture.

The vehicles in question include 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs recalled under government pressure in June 2013. The company also agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees.

NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge on Friday said the letter is under review.

Rosekind in May told reporters on a conference call that the agency will not revisit the investigation that first began in August 2010, but would “consider new information.”

Several of the new incidents cited by Ditlow did involve high-speed crashes or unusual circumstances, including at least two incidents involving tractor-trailers, according to local media reports from the accidents.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, which produces Jeeps, has long contended that the Jeeps were no more dangerous than comparable SUVs built at the time.

“These are tragic accidents caused by factors such as excessive speed and driver distraction,” the company said in a statement on Friday.

“Two dozen peer-vehicles had higher (Fatal Analysis Reporting System) incident rates than vehicles subject to the NHTSA investigation in question; 15 of which are equipped with fuel tanks of the same design.”

Of the 100 car and SUV models from that era with the highest rear-crash fire death rates, the Liberty was lower than 24 models and the Grand Cherokee was lower than 60, according to a previous Fiat Chrysler analysis of NHTSA data through 2010.

Federal documents previously showed that at least 75 people had died in post-crash fires due to the tanks. Ditlow’s 11 would bring total fatalities to at least 86. The statistics, he said, are based on data recorded and maintained by NHTSA and medical records.

He also cited eight fire deaths in older Jeeps in a fatal accident that weren’t part of the recall.

One of the 11 deaths outlined by Ditlow involved a pregnant Ferndale woman named Kayla White. A Cadillac struck White’s 2003 Jeep Liberty traveling more than 70 miles per hour on the Lodge Freeway near Telegraph as traffic slowed during rush hour, causing it to hit a vehicle in front of her, overturn and catch fire.

She died as flames engulfed her car, according to the Oakland County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Southfield attorney Gerald Thurswell, representing the 23-year-old’s family, has said for more than a year that a lawsuit against the automaker has been in the works. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

The Jeep-fire recall is part of a combative relationship between the company and NHTSA that included the government agency fining a record-setting $105 million over the handling of nearly two dozen recalls covering 11 million vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler also agreed last July to make trade-in offers to the Jeep owners or pay them to have the hitches installed.

Still, only 35 percent of the recalled Jeeps had been repaired by the end of 2015. Another 545,000 owners can’t be reached, or their vehicles have been scrapped, according to a report filed with the government by Fiat Chrysler.

The company has made 15.3 million attempts to reach owners by mail, telephone calls or email, spokesman Eric Mayne said.

Fiat Chrysler has agreed to offer $1,000 above market value trade-in prices on a new vehicle to owners of 1993 to 1998 Grand Cherokees.

Owners of both the recalled Liberty and Grand Cherokee SUVs would get $100 gift cards to have their vehicles repaired.

Associated Press contributed.