Government Asked to Take Hard Look at Chrysler Jeep Safety Remedy

PHOTO: Scene of Jeep Cherokee accident
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Ana Pena was an aspiring chef and a single mother of three with a wide smile.

That was a year and a half ago. These days she leads a very different life. The 38-year old doesn't like to go out in public anymore, and her days are spent living with, and suffering from, the effects of third-degree burns that scarred a third of her body.

The Indiana woman nearly died and was disfigured in January of last year when her Jeep Grand Cherokee was hit from behind by a pick-up truck.

Witnesses said the Jeep immediately burst into flames. Pena, her mother and Pena's two 6-year-old twins likely survived only because passersby risked their own lives to save them.

Today, she and auto safety advocates sat down for a private meeting with the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to call for strong action on older-model Jeeps, which they believe are defective -- prone to fires in rear-end collisions.

The government agrees, and an initial investigation determined at least 51 people had died from fires following rear end collisions involving the Jeep Grand Cherokee, model years 1993 to 2005, and Jeep Liberty, model years 2002 to 2007.

The investigation cited the fuel tank location, behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, which investigators concluded made the tank vulnerable to rupture when the vehicle was rear-ended.

Under pressure from NHTSA, Chrysler proposed retrofitting some of the vehicles with a new trailer hitch to add extra heft to the rear bumper.

Get details on Chrysler's proposal to add trailer hitches to late-model Jeeps.

Auto safety groups are not convinced that step will fully eliminate the safety problem. Today, they urged NHTSA Administrator David Strickland not to approve Chrysler's fix unless the retrofit passes crash tests that show it will help protect the fuel tank when the Jeep is hit from behind.

"I don't think anyone can rely on the safety of a vehicle," said former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook, who was in the meeting, "unless it is crash tested with this fix. I think you have to crash test the vehicle, otherwise you really don't know if their remedy works."

Claybrook ran the agency during the uproar over the Ford Pinto, which was also found to be prone to fires in rear-end collisions. She pointed out that under her leadership, NHTSA tested Ford's proposed fix and found it wanting. The auto maker had to go back to the drawing board.

Today's meeting, according to Claybrook, was productive.

"The administrator said that they were going to rely on data and evaluation, and we said that's just not enough," she said. "He heard us loud and clear, so I believe they're going to consider [crash tests.]"

In a statement to ABC News, NHTSA said that the agency's "investigation remains open pending completion of the agency's review of the remedy announced by Chrysler."

The auto maker had no comment on today's meeting, but reiterated its position that the Jeeps "do not contain a defect related to motor vehicle safety."

Ana Pena finds that hard to comprehend. Pointing to her scarred body, she said, she didn't want anyone else to have to go through what she and her family have endured.

Her 6-year-old daughter also suffered burns in the accident, although not as severe as her mother's. Pena can no longer work and faces more than $1 million in medical bills.

Her attorney, Ines Murphy, said Pena was not injured from the force of the crash itself.

"Ana suffered not a single broken bone. Not one finger, nothing," said Murphy. "Is it unreasonably unsafe that you should have just opened the car door and walked out of this accident with, perhaps, a headache, but instead you're trapped in a burning car. Is that reasonable? Chrysler wants us to accept that as reasonable. Ana disagrees and, I think, most Americans would too."

Chrysler declined an opportunity to comment on Pena's allegations that her accident undermines its argument that its vehicles are not defective.

Incidentally, if NHTSA accepts the trailer hitch fix proposed by Chrysler, the 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee that Pena was driving that morning would not even be included because Chrysler's proposed safety recall does not include any Jeep Grand Cherokee made after 1998.

In an email to ABC News, Chrysler said those vehicles have "excellent safety records" and have "performed particularly well."

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