NHTSA recently upgraded its investigation of the potential increased fire risk in certain model year Jeep Grand Cherokees from 1997 to 2004, which was applauded by auto safety advocates across the U.S. after years of pushing for more action in this matter. But, even with mounting data and more deaths added to the count annually, Chrysler still contends that no defect exists in the design and placement of its fuel tanks.
Safety advocates maintain that the gas tank’s placement behind the rear axle is a defective design choice. It’s clear to me, even without an engineering degree, that putting a gas tank unshielded below the rear bumper is a bad decision. Rear impact accidents are commonplace, and the positioning of the fuel tank in that crush zone without adequate protection is unreasonable. In addition, the fuel filler pipe can rip away in a rear impact, causing gasoline to leak.
In its redesign of the Grand Cherokee for the 2005 model year, Chrysler positioned the gas tank in front of the rear axle, but said the change was not undertaken for safety reasons. The company still maintains that there is no safety problem with the vehicle and that a recall is “absolutely not” certain.
The agency recently said it would expand the investigation beyond the Jeep Grand Cherokees to include the 1993-2001 Cherokee S.U.V. and 2002-2007 Liberty compact crossover. Combined with the three million Grand Cherokees, the investigation now totals 5.1 million vehicles.
NHTSA said in its filing that “rear-impact-related tank failures and vehicle fires are more prevalent in the Jeep Grand Cherokee than in non-Jeep peer vehicles.” This is a bold statement from the typically reserved Agency, and, runs counter to Chrysler’s public statements.
If the agency’s investigation and engineering review progresses to the point where the agency itself deems action necessary, the company will face the prospect of dealing with a massive recall. As part of its 2009 restructuring, Chrysler assumed responsibility for safety recalls for vehicles it made before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. However, the company shielded itself from any lawsuits by consumers who were victims of such post-impact fires if their crashes occurred before the bankruptcy proceedings.
Consumer and safety advocates continue to urge action, but, with years of life left on many of these vehicles, and the agency investigation ongoing, purchasers and users of these effected vehicles must be conscious of the safety risks that exist before they may be struck from behind in an accident.