NHTSA Investigation of Jeep Fuel Tank Fires Expands to 5.1 Million Vehicles

By Trevor Dorchies | June 14, 2012
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has expanded its probe into Jeep's Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, and Liberty models after the regulatory agency received around two dozen reports of fires occurring after a rear-ending crash. The NHTSA has now upgraded its preliminary investigation with the three aforementioned models concerning fuel tanks that are situated behind the rear axle. In 2005, Chrysler redesigned each Jeep model of concern and increased the space between the front and rear axle and put the fuel tank in the middle. The probe now covers 5.1 million Jeep Grand Cherokees produced from 1993 to 2004, Cherokees built from 1993 to 2001, and Liberty models assembled from 2002 to 2007. Chrysler doesn't know how many affected vehicles are still on the road today, as some were made more than two decades ago. According to the NHTSA's early findings, fires that occurred after a rear-ending accident may have caused at least 15 deaths and possibly injured 46 others. If it's decided that the expanded number of vehicles in this probe do need to be recalled, it would be among the top 10 largest in the United States. However, Chrysler doesn't believe this probe will end with a recall being issued. While the NHTSA is conducting this probe, Chrysler also did its own research finding that all of the Jeep vehicles in question are not likely to catch fire during a rear impact crash. The original probe was opened back in October of 2010 and extensive research has been conducted since then. Chrysler tested over 21,000 Grand Cherokees produced from 1993 to 2004—the original vehicle called into question—and found that "rear impacts resulting in a fire are extremely rare." It was also concluded that Grand Cherokee vehicles are just as likely to burst into flames after being rear-ended as competitor vehicles like the Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer, and Chevrolet Blazer. Because of these findings, Chrysler is confident that all vehicles in question aren't defective and the fuel systems will act as designed in the event of a rear impact crash.
"The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and other subject vehicles meet or exceed all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards and have excellent safety records with hundreds of billions of vehicle miles driven," Chrysler said in a statement on its website. It's unknown how much it would cost Chrysler if this investigation was to result in a recall being issued. Chrysler has also declined to comment how much it would cost. Cost doesn't appear to be a concern for the Detroit-based automaker though as safety supersedes that. “Safety, not cost, is Chrysler Group’s top concern,” Eric Mayne, a spokesman for Chrysler to Bloomberg. “We believe the vehicles are safe and that a detailed engineering analysis will bear that out.” If this investigation does result in a recall being issued, it wouldn't be the first time one of this size occurred in America. Toyota was called to the carpet a few years ago when its 2009 and 2010 model lineup was accused of unintended accelerating. That recall included 10 million Toyota vehicles and a mass overload of lawsuits from customers. Ford is familiar with massive recalls too as its Pinto was the topic of controversy after claims in 1977 that the fuel tank's neck would sever in the event of a rear end accident spilling fuel everywhere. This would result in a fire and forever made the Pinto the butt-end of jokes about cars exploding when hit from behind. Over the course of the Pinto's life, a reported 27 deaths had occurred because of the exploding fuel tanks. Clarence Ditlow, the head of The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group told Bloomberg that the Jeep vehicles in question are "a modern-day Pinto for soccer moms." As always, stay tuned as more information about this investigation becomes available. Source: Bloomberg, Chrysler