NHTSA to close Jeep Grand Cherokee investigation

WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) -- She walked out the door, drove up the hill and about an hour later had the accident," says Steve Mayer.

"He's screaming, 'Mom! Mom!' And, she just burned to death, right in front of us," says Jenelle Embrey.

Death by fire. It happened to mothers who brought kids home from college. Teens who took the family car for a spin. And, small children who couldn't get out of their little car seats in the nick of time. They are the faces of the innocent victims whose lives were cut short by an accident in Jeep Grand Cherokee models from certain years.

"The Jeeps have continued to drive down the roads and crashes have occurred," Clarence Ditlow says.

Like the tragedy on I-91 in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. The smoke billowing in the background is from the 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee driving by 17 year old Skyler Anderson Coughlin that night.

Massachusetts State Police believe he was struck from behind by a tractor trailer because he was braking to avoid a couch and cushions that had fallen out of a pickup truck. Skyler's vehicle burst into flames.

"I think that was an avoidable tragedy," he says.

Clarence Ditlow heads up the Center For Auto Safety. His non-profit petitioned NHTSA to investigate the fiery crashes in Jeep Grand Cherokee models from certain years. The Center For Auto Safety believes the placement of the plastic gas tanks in those vehicles can lead to fires and deaths when they are struck from behind. The gas tank is located behind the rear axle, literally in the crush zone of the vehicle.

Chrysler says the vehicles are safe and not defective. The automaker points out that in the 26 fatal accidents cited by NHTSA where they can calculate kinetic energy, the deaths in all those vehicles involved speeds that exceed today's crash test requirements.

But, the company agreed to recall over one million of the remaining 1993 to 1998 models, along with 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberty's back in June of last year.

The interim notices to warn owners about the recall didn't start going out until December 2013. Skyler Anderson Coughlin's accident occurred on the night of November 10, 2013.

"Is this case in Massachusetts problematic for both NHTSA and Chrysler because it occurred between the issuing of the recall and the issuing of the notices?," says WUSA 9's Lesli Foster.

"It's very troubling for Chrysler and NHTSA. Chrysler could have mailed those notices saying we're developing a fix one week after telling NHTSA we're going to do a recall. That's what Chrysler could and should have done," Clarence Ditlow says.

There was no regulation in place that required Chrysler to do that until October of last year. If you start the clock there, the company would have 60 days to notify owners. To fix the problem, Chrysler says a trailer hitch will help protect the plastic gas tank to quote, "better manage crash forces in low speed impacts."

But, the debate continues about this recall solution because advocates point to the case of Cassidy Jarmon. The four year old died back in 2006 riding in a 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee that was equipped with a trailer hitch. A police accident report says, "the hitch bent under the rear, puncturing the plastic gas tank of the Jeep."

Ditlow and others want crash tested proof that the Chrysler fix will work.

"There have been other fuel tank recalls where the government did a crash test. NHTSA needs to do what it did with the Ford Pinto and require Chrysler to develop a better fix because at the end of the day, we want a recall remedy for these Jeep Grand Cherokees to work so they stop killing people on the roads," says Clarence Ditlow.

Neither NHTSA nor Chrysler will confirm whether the trailer hitch has been crash tested. Chrysler tells us, "Chrysler Group commends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the diligence demonstrated over the course of this investigation. We share NHTSA's commitment to safety and await the closing resume. Data show that these vehicles are among the safest in their peer group."

NHTSA is expected to issue a final analysis shortly, but by all accounts, this investigation is closed. An agency spokesperson says NHTSA has been in close communication with Chrysler throughout the process and that it is "supportive of their announced actions to move forward."

Clarence Ditlow says he has no confidence in the fix and he offers this advice to owners.

"Limit your use of this Jeep. And above all else, if you have kids that are more likely to be involved in a crash, don't let them drive your Jeep. Tell them to drive another vehicle," he says.

The parts needed for the fix are not available yet, but Chrysler says it will notify owners by mail when the fix is ready. Back in 2005, Chrysler moved the gas tank ahead of the rear axle, the company says, to make room for more cargo space.

Skyler's parents had not idea about the recall. They Jeep was his father's vehicle. And, his father says if he'd known about the recall, he would have never allowed his son to take it, and perhaps he'd still be alive today.


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