Tuesday, March 11 2014 11:32 PM EDT2014-03-12 03:32:56 GMT
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WASHINGTON, DC -
The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says government regulators relied on "pushing and prodding and threats and yelling" to convince Chrysler to initiate a recall of older-model Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys.
The comments from NHTSA administrator David Strickland came during a one-hour meeting Strickland hosted for crash victims and safety advocates in July.
WTHR has obtained a recording of the closed-door meeting, which reveals government doubts about Chrysler's controversial recall plan and a reluctance by the automaker to take action.
Following a long investigation, NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million older Jeeps for what the government describes as a dangerous safety defect.
In a June 2013 letter to Chrysler, NHTSA explains why it believes 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys are "poor performers" in terms of fatalities, fires and fuel leaks in rear-end crashes.
NHTSA said "there is a performance defect and a design defect" involving the vehicles' gas tanks. According to regulators, locating the fuel tank behind the rear axle and just inches from the back bumper makes it more vulnerable to a rupture during rear-impact crashes. 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.
Facing public pressure, 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.
Chrysler's recall plan triggered red flags from victims and consumer groups, who say a trailer hitch won't solve the problem.
Ana Piña, who barely survived when her 2000 Jeep Cherokee was rear-ended last year in northern Indiana, points out her vehicle had a trailer hitch when it exploded from a ruptured gas tank.
"That don't fix anything," said Piña, who is still recovering from burns she suffered over 40% of her body. "Chrysler knows that."
Clarence Ditlow, the longtime director of the Center For Auto Safety, agrees.
He believes a trailer hitch may actually make the gas tank problem worse. He points to accidents like the one that killed 4-year-old Cassidy Jarmon to explain why. When her mom's Jeep was rear-ended in Texas, police and Chrysler both concluded it was actually the vehicle's trailer hitch that punctured the gas tank -- fueling a deadly fire.
"Cassidy Jarmon was burned to death in a child seat in a survivable rear impact. That's proof positive that trailer hitches don't prevent fire deaths in these vehicles," Ditlow told WTHR.
Despite those concerns about the recall from victims and safety advocates, federal regulators have said little in public.
The government did issue a standard acknowledgment of the recall, but NHTSA has not publicly discussed growing concerns about Chrysler's trailer-hitch remedy and whether it will adequately address what the government believes is "an unreasonable risk to safety the vehicles present in rear impact crashes."
The agency also did not publicly respond to the automaker's argument that federal investigators used flawed statistics to improperly conclude a Jeep safety recall is necessary.
Equipped with a petition and a tape recorder, Jenelle Embrey would bring that silence to an end.
PRIVATE MEETING RECORDED
Embrey became a central figure in the Jeep recall effort after she witnessed a fatal Jeep accident first-hand.
She and her father were driving near their homes in Virginia when they watched a distracted driver rear-end a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee with three people inside. The vehicle burst into flames. Embrey's father was able to save one person from the burning Jeep, but vivid images of the two other victims – Acoye Breckenridge and Heather Santor – still haunt her.
"It's the most horrific scene you can imagine watching people burn to death in front of you," Embrey told WTHR.
Following the accident, Embrey launched an online petition to gain support for a Jeep recall. Within a few months, 128,000 people signed her petition – more than enough to get the attention of NHTSA.
NHTSA administrator David Strickland agreed to meet with Embrey to hear her concerns about the recall plan offered by Chrysler.
A closed-door meeting was set for July 1 at NHTSA headquarters inside the U.S. Department of Transportation building in Washington.
Embrey wanted NHTSA to hear from others who share her doubts about what she perceives as a "fake recall," so she invited victims like Piña to join her. On the day of the meeting, Embrey also brought along victims' representatives, other safety advocates and her tape recorder.
"We went to Washington just so I could hear face-to-face from David Strickland if he was going to take care of this," she explained. "I turned the tape recorder on. There were no signs not to."
It is unclear whether Strickland and the seven NHTSA staff members who attended the meeting with him realized they were being recorded, but the candid comments heard on the audio tape yield new insights and new concerns about Chrysler's recall.
They also underscore Chrysler's reluctance to issue any recall involving Jeep fuel tanks.
"WEREN"T GOING TO DO A DAMNED THING"
After introductions from the 17 people attending the meeting and some brief opening statements, Strickland explained why his agency has maintained a low public profile following Chrysler's controversial recall proposal.
"We have not responded yet because we're still evaluating because we're asking, you know, frankly, the very same questions that everybody else at this table is, you know: Does the remedy address, you know, the unreasonable risk of safety?" Strickland said.
Piña told Strickland she is frustrated that Chrysler continues to issue denials and that the automaker insists there are no safety defects involving the gas tanks on older Jeeps like hers.
"Chrysler, they don't think there is any problem," she said. "It is real. I am sorry. This not my imagination, you know? I am right here… I can prove this happened because of the Jeep in the accident. I am not here to lie."
Strickland heard graphic testimony about children and adults who survived the impact of a rear-end crash in their Jeeps, only to be burned to death by a raging fire caused by a leaking gas tank. Following those comments, he again voiced doubts about whether Chrysler's plan is adequate, while also criticizing the automaker's willingness to take action.
"We have questions about whether the right thing has been addressed here in terms of what Chrysler has presented," he said. "I am just going to be blunt. They weren't going to do a damned thing. They weren't. You know, it took a lot of pushing and prodding and threats and yelling and, frankly, you know, my legal department to get ready. It's like we were going to go to war. The unfortunate thing was that if it ended up in that particular posture, we are looking at three to five years before we actually got resolution from the NHTSA perspective."
The administrator went on to say that he and former DOT secretary Ray LaHood "cut no deals because it was convenient." Strickland suggested the offer proposed by NHTSA was better than getting no deal at all, even if the proposed remedy has yet to be tested for its effectiveness.
"There's frankly a lot of people that aren't with us at all, you know, from crashes that you know, frankly, as you know, could have been easily walked away from. That was one of the things that moved me very deeply to make sure that we fought and put the resources to get to where we are. So while Chrysler has made an offer willingly, we will make sure that we are satisfied that the remedy does address the safety need, and there is a lot of work going on with that."
WHY NOT DEMAND MORE?
Strickland answered questions about NHTSA's decision to exempt many older-model Jeeps from its original recall request. Millions of older Jeep Cherokees, including the one Piña was driving at the time of her accident, were not included in NHTSA's recall letter to Chrysler. The company's current plan also excludes some Jeep Grand Cherokees that federal regulators asked to be recalled.
"In terms of comparing, you know, fire-related fatalities in these particular vehicles, it was very close to their peers," Strickland explained, adding that Chrysler provided compelling data that made NHTSA re-consider its position on Jeep Cherokees. "If the data shows that the peer vehicles of this particular vehicle are in the same range, it isn't an unreasonable risk to safety … if I don't have a legal basis, you know, to show there is an unreasonable risk of safety based upon the data, which is the foundation of all that we do, then that is where we are."
The NHTSA administrator said his staff found other Jeep models – 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys – with a safety risk "off the charts," justifying the agency's request for a recall. Strickland said his staff is now conducting an engineering analysis to determine if Chrysler's plan will reduce risk and improve safety.
While NHTSA quietly studies the automaker's proposal, Chrysler is making plans to install trailer hitches for a problem it believes isn't really a problem.
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, says that doesn't make sense.
"I think putting a trailer hitch on these vehicles is ridiculous," Claybrook told 13 Investigates, adding that she cannot understand why the federal agency has been so quiet about Chrysler's decision to not implement a full recall.
"I'm really disappointed. They're completely letting us down," she said. "It's time for this vehicle to be recalled and fixed properly."
In the 1970s, Claybrook led the government's successful effort to recall fuel tanks on the Ford Pinto. Like some older-model Jeeps, the Pinto was also linked to deaths caused by rear-mounted gas tank that were vulnerable to rupture in a rear-impact collisions. Claybrook forced Ford to change its recall plan after NHTSA tested it and determined it would not work.
She believes NHTSA should also test Chrysler's trailer-hitch plan for Jeeps, and Claybrook made a direct plea to Strickland during the closed-door meeting in July.
"I urge you from the bottom of my heart, do a crash test," she said. "I think that is the only thing that would tell the truth."
Strickland did not commit to performing new crash tests.
"I will make no promises because, at the end of the day, I want to make sure that, frankly, our engineering team has a maximum amount of flexibility to be able to make the decisions."
Those comments did not impress Embrey, who left the meeting feeling skeptical.
"Really, he danced around the issues a lot. He did not give us any solid word on anything," she said.
Others who attended the meeting tell WTHR they remain optimistic.
"We're expecting any day for NHTSA to announce the remedy doesn't work and for Chrysler to go back to the drawing board," said Ditlow. "Recall those vehicles."
The Center for Auto Safety believes continued delays by Chrysler and NHTSA are having a devastating impact.
Last week, a 17-year-old died when his older-model Jeep Grand Cherokee was rear ended by a semi near Boston. Police believe the teenager may have swerved into the path of the truck to avoid couch cushions lying on the highway. The Jeep immediately caught fire and the victim burned to death.
"We can't wait any longer," Ditlow said. "It makes no sense and even worse, people are dying and being severely burned in the meantime."
NHTSA AND CHRYSLER RESPONSES
Both NHTSA and Chrysler declined WTHR's request for an interview about Strickland's comments and the current status of the recall. However, this week NHTSA sent Eyewitness News the following statement:
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is deeply committed to improving safety and reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our nation's roadways. The agency routinely meets with safety advocates and other stakeholders, including crash victims to ensure safety defects are addressed by automakers. NHTSA's investigation remains open pending completion of the agency's evaluation of Chrysler's proposed remedy. Consistent with all NHTSA defect investigations, the agency will publish its final analysis when completed. As always, NHTSA will monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues."
Chrysler re-issued an earlier statement about the recall:
"Preparations continue to implement the announced actions, though the affected vehicles are not defective. Customers will be advised when to schedule vehicle inspections with their dealers."
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