Aug. 25, 2010 -- 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.
Sheridan said because the plastic fuel tank is in the rear of the Jeep -- and unprotected in some models -- a vehicle that hits it from behind and slides under the bumper could tear the tank open.
"You have a situation where the gas, the raw gas, is sloshing into the interior of the vehicle and coating everything with gasoline," he explained.
"[It] seems like common sense that you wouldn't put a fuel tank in the crush zone," said Daniels. "Yes it does from a safety point of view," said Sheridan.
Kline's death is not the only one linked to a fiery Jeep Grand Cherokee accident. At WTVD's request, the Center for Auto Safety analyzed data gathered by NHTSA. It says it found more than 60 deaths in accidents involving fires or explosions and Grand Cherokees manufactured between 1993 and 2004. Quality Control Systems Corp., a statistical analysis firm contracted by WTVD, said that its analysis of NHTSA data showed that fatal rear accidents reported for Grand Cherokees made between 1993 and 2004 were three times more likely to involve fires than were fatal rear accidents involving comparable SUVs made during the same period.
Chrysler told WTVD in 2009 it rejected the Center for Auto Safety analysis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data -- saying it "does not contain all relevant accurate data [about the accidents] that is needed to make a valid conclusion." It also said that the Quality Control Systems Corp. analysis was "simplistic" and "invalid," and said it was "confident that a proper study which considered all factors in all fatal collisions…would show that the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees perform as well as or better than other vehicles in their class."
Since 1993, Chrysler has offered as an option for the Grand Cherokee a skid plate that provides some protection for the gas tank. Chrysler says the skid plate is intended for customers "who want to do more severe off-road driving" to protect the tanks from rocks and boulders.
Beginning in 1999, a fuel tank brush guard was included as standard equipment in Cherokees that were not fitted with the skid plate. Chrysler said this was to protect the tank against brush and small rocks that might be encountered in "light duty off road driving."
In 2005, Daimler-Chrysler redesigned the vehicle and moved the tank to the middle of the Grand Cherokee. The automaker told WTVD it did that to make more room for storage space inside.
Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese said safety concerns about the gas tank's position did not play a part in the decision to move it.
Chrysler declined WTVD's requests for an on-camera interview.
"It is important to note that the data you are attempting to analyze reflects real world operation over a 10-year period in which more than two and a half million 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees were on the road and many, many millions of miles of safe operation were experienced by our customers," said Chrysler in a statement. "The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand meets or exceeds federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record."