The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has fired another shot in the escalating war of words between itself and Chrysler. Only hours ago, the NHTSA said that it would give Chrysler a deadline of June 18th to formally respond to its request that the automaker recall nearly 3 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Liberty SUVs.
The recall request relates to an issue of design that many safety experts believe is responsible for deadly vehicle fires. Jeep Grand Cherokees made between 1993 and 2004 and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty have the fuel tank located behind the rear axel. Given this location and the height of the SUVs, the tank is especially vulnerable in the event of a rear-impact collision. Consumer safety groups have gathered accident reports linking the design to hundreds of vehicle fires and dozens of deaths.
Chrysler, for its part, says that NHTSA is wrong and that its vehicles fully comply with federal safety standards. It says it has no intention of issuing any recall and has so far refused to even discuss the possibility of issuing a voluntary recall to correct the problem. Experts say that something as small a tiny metal shield attached to the bottom of the car could substantially increase the safety of the tank in the event of a rear-impact collision.
In the NHTSA’s recent press release, the agency said it would decide what step to take next based on Chrysler’s formal response. The agency says it has clear evidence that the design used in the affected Jeep models goes against typical fuel tank design across the auto industry. It also has data which shows Jeeps have higher rates of vehicle fires than other similar SUVs. Moreover, the NHTSA says that Chrysler itself changed the fuel tank placement in more recent model vehicles after becoming aware of the danger presented by rear-impact collisions.
It’s become quite uncommon for car companies to refuse to comply with a recall request these days. Most companies do not want to be seen as choosing to keep dangerous cars on the road. Experts say this case is reminiscent of a similar battle between the government and Ford back in the 1970s over the recall of more than a million Ford Pintos due to similar gas tank location problems. Ultimately the government won that battle and Ford was responsible for fixing the vehicles that had been found to be responsible for 27 deaths. Here, the numbers of people who have died in Jeep vehicle fires is at least twice as great, possibly more depending on whose statistics you believe.