NHTSA challenges Chrysler on jeep gas tank repair delay

WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) -- "There's no good explanation. I mean, people are dying. They're being burned in these fire crashes in these jeeps," Clarence Ditlow says.

It's hard to imagine anyone could survive the flames raging from this 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee on a California highway. In April, two brother in the SUV were struck from behind by another car that caught fire, too. The men escaped, but with massive burns.

And, last November this tragedy unfolded on a different highway nearly 3,000 miles away in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Smoke billowed from the 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee driven by 17 year old Skyler Anderson Coughlin. Massachusetts State Police believe Skyler was struck from behind by a tractor trailer as he tried to avoid some debris on I-91.

Skyler's vehicle burst into flames. He died at the scene. His father had no idea that vehicle was part of a recall issued months before the accident.

"I think that was an avoidable accident," says Ditlow.

Clarence Ditlow heads up the Center for Auto Safety. The non-profit that alerted the government to problems with the gas tanks in certain older model jeeps.

The gas tanks are positioned behind the rear axle with virtually no protection in the event of a crash.

Chrysler maintains it's vehicles are safe. But, more than a year after they agreed to recall 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty models, none of the vehicles have been fixed.

Ditlow says, "NHTSA's saying, 'How come it's taking so long?'"

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put that question to Chrysler in what's called a "special order." They want to know why none of the vehicles have the trailer hitch fix that is supposed to protect the gas tank in the event of a low speed crash.

In that document, NHTSA expressed concern about the pace of the recall and calculated it would take the automaker two to five years to finish all the repairs.

Ditlow says special orders are rarely used.

"This special order issued by NHTSA was really an act of exasperation," asks WUSA 9 anchor and consumer correspondent Lesli Foster.

"Right, it is the last thing that they can do," says Ditlow.

Chrysler says it's kept NHTSA in the loop about their production timeline. And, that it should have all the parts it needs by 2015 and should complete the repairs by March of 2016. The company also says it had to seek out more suppliers to help them meet the demand and design new tools for the dealerships to make the repairs.

"So, you're at Chrysler's mercy. You're at the government's mercy. And, the only thing that you know is that it's taking too long to put the trailer hit on your vehicle," Clarence Ditlow says.

So, what does this mean for you if you have one these vehicles?

The Center for Auto Safety says limit your use, don't let teens drive them.

Chrysler maintains it's vehicles are safe, not defective and that suppliers are working overtime to produce the trailer hitches for the recalled Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty models.

NHTSA says it does not have issues with Chrysler's remedy, but it will continue to monitor the process and take more action if necessary.

In 2005, Chrysler moved the gas tank ahead of the rear axle, the company says, to make more cargo space.


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