Feds wrap up Jeep fuel tank investigation


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is closing its investigation into fuel tank fires in millions of Jeep SUVs.  Federal safety officials are also signing off on the automakers plan to address this issue by adding a trailer hitch to the back many of those SUVs.

This week, NHTSA notified Chrysler that it would issue its final analysis and formally close the investigation in Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty SUVs in the next few weeks.

In June, NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million older Jeeps for what the government described as a dangerous safety defect.  In a June 2013 letter to Chrysler, NHTSA cited a "performance defect and a design defect" involving fuel tanks that are mounted behind the rear axle and just inches from the back bumper.  Safety regulators said that placement made the tank more vulnerable to rupture during a rear-impact crash. 

Based on the findings and 51 related deaths tracked by NHTSA, the federal agency formally asked Chrysler to initiate a safety recall.

Chrysler said no, declining NHTSA's recall request. In a detailed response, Chrysler insisted the vehicles in question "are safe and do not contain a defect." Chrysler said the Jeep gas tanks comply with all government safety standards and the vehicles' crash performance is reasonable and comparable to other SUVs.

Chrysler did agree to a more limited recall involving an unusual remedy: adding a trailer hitch to some of the older Jeeps. The automaker says it might provide more protection during rear-impact crashes.  The recall includes 1993-1998 Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty SUVs

Safety experts are critical of the proposed trailer hitch remedy, saying it will not do enough to protect fuel tanks during rear-impact crashes.

NHTSA sent Eyewitness News a statement about closing the investigation:  "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is deeply committed to reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our nation's roadways.  Throughout this process, the agency has been in close communication with Chrysler and has no reservations at this time with their announced actions to move forward.  Consumers should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive final notification from Chrysler. NHTSA will continue to monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues."

Chrysler told 13 Investigates, "Chrysler Group commends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the diligence demonstrated over the course of this investigation. We share NHTSA's commitment to safety."

In recent weeks, Jeep owners have received initial notices about the recall.  The notices say Chrysler has been working out design details of the trailer hitches and is now preparing tooling to make the parts.  When parts are available, the automaker will notify customers.

Previous stories:

13 Investigates: Recall Under Fire

NHTSA Chief: Jeep recall required pushing, prodding, threats against Chrysler

Jeep owners sent recall notices

Links and resources:

Center for Auto Safety 

Oct. 2, 2009 – CAS Petitions NHTSA for fuel tank investigation

Dec. 13, 2012 – Chrysler's Response to NHTSA's request for Information

June 3, 2013 - NHTSA letter to Chrysler

June 4, 2013 - Chrysler white paper in response to NHTSA recall request

June 18, 2013 - Chrysler response to NHTSA recall request 

June 18, 2013 - Chrysler details recall plans

June 20, 2013 - Center for Auto Safety objects to Chrysler recall plans

Jeep Grand Cherokee recall petition

Limited recall of older-model Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys

Center for Auto Safety's white paper on concerns about Chrysler recall plans