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NHTSA Expands Probe, Chrysler Holds Breath

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On: Fri, Jun 15, 2012 at 10:53AM | By: Chris Salamone


NHTSA Expands Probe, Chrysler Holds Breath

Late last year a Lake Mary, Florida accident rose to the attention of national media. A 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee was involved in a rear-end collision, and then proceeded to explode and roast a 24-year-old male caught in a series of tragic, and unexpected, events. And, while heart-wrenching, the incident reached critical media mass not because of the vehicle, driver, or ensuing disaster. Instead, it seemed that the accident verified AND fueled an investigation already underway by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – which started a full year before, in August 2010.

Even so, up until recently, the NHTSA was set on evaluating only 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees. Apparently though, after a half year, the NHTSA has finally decided to broaden the scope of the agency’s investigation to include the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty and…you guessed it…the 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokee. That brings the total to a whopping 5.1 million Chrysler vehicles.

The heart of the debate is the location of Chrysler’s fuel tanks. In older models, mostly made before 2005, the company placed plastic fuel tanks behind the rear axle and slightly below the rear bumper. The Center for Auto Safety alleges that such a location makes the tank more prone to leak or rupture during an impact.

Without a recall, or safety notice, in 2005 Chrysler starting moving affected vehicles’ fuel tanks in between the axles, and moved spare tires into the vehicle’s rear compartment. But, of course, retrospective safety changes are not to be considered evidence of product liability. Boo…

The Center for Auto Safety has also found that the total number of fatal vehicle fires associated with 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees is roughly four times greater than from different brands of SUV.

In the meantime, though, Chrysler has conducted an investigation as well. After 21,000 rear impacts in company and peer vehicles, there was no increased safety risk found. David Dillon, Chrysler’s head of product investigations and campaigns, said Wednesday that the tanks are “neither defective nor do their fuel systems pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety.”

As with any agency investigation, the NHTSA’s probe will likely take a lot longer than most Chrysler owners are willing to wait. But applying some common logic here: we’re talking about a plastic tank, filled with explosive liquid, strapped near a heavy-duty impact zone.

If you own a vehicle with a rear-mounted plastic gas tank, now is a good time to (a) move it elsewhere or (b) visit the local dealership for a trade-in.




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