US officials have opened an investigation into 3 million Jeep Grand Cherokees because of claims that improperly located and poorly protected gas tanks could cause fires in some crashes. The alleged problem was first highlighted in reports by the investigative team at WTVD in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina, an ABC owned-and-operated station.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) inquiry will begin the process of determining whether a recall of Jeep Grand Cherokees from the model years 1993 to 2004 is necessary. Grand Cherokees made during that period had plastic gas tanks placed in the rear of the vehicle, a position that critics say made it vulnerable in certain types of accidents.
The agency said its initial review shows that the Grand Cherokee did not have significantly more fires after crashes than other vehicles, and that the existence of post-crash fires "does not, by itself, establish a defect trend." NHTSA has found 44 Grand Cherokee crashes and 55 deaths since 1992 where fire was listed as the most harmful factor. Ten of the crashes and 13 deaths were most likely associated with rear-end collisions, according to NHTSA.
Chrysler said that the Grand Cherokee has an excellent safety record and that the company is cooperating with the government investigation.
WTVD's reporting in 2009 was prompted by a claim by the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, that the gas tank's position below the rear bumper and behind the rear axle could cause fuel to spill if the SUV were struck from behind. The group also said that the neck of the fuel tank could tear off in crashes.
WTVD told the story of 49-year-old mother of two Susan Kline, who died in a fiery accident while driving alone on a New Jersey highway on February 24, 2007. According to police reports, witnesses said she slowed down to avoid a car that was backing up after the driver missed an exit. Kline was rear-ended and her 1996 Grand Cherokee burst into flames.
"Imagine somebody you've been with, that you've loved dearly for 33 years, being burned to death. It's just not a good picture," Kline's husband Tom told WTVD investigative reporter Steve Daniels.
Susan Kline's remains were found in the passenger seat. She died trying to escape the flames.
"The whole accident, what happened and how it happened, and the result of what happened, is just horrific," said Tom Kline.
Paul Sheridan was a manager at Chrysler for 11years before -- he claims -- he was fired for publicly criticizing the automaker on safety issues. He often testifies against the company in court.
Chrysler told WTVD that it views Sheridan as a "whistleblower for hire" who's not an engineer and had no involvement in developing or testing the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese called Sheridan's engineering judgment "highly questionable" and said it was irresponsible to portray his opinions as informed.
Sheridan told WTVD the minivan that hit Kline's Grand Cherokee struck it where the fuel tank was located. He claimed that caused an explosion in a crash that should not have been deadly.
"She would have survived. She would have gone home that night," he offered.
"Do you blame this design?" asked Daniels.
"Oh, this design is a fundamental safety defect. No question about it," Sheridan responded.