June 5, 2013 -- With the government and Chrysler in a tug of war over the safety of older-model Jeeps, the nearly three million consumers who are driving them are left in limbo, wondering if the vehicle they depend on is safe to drive.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants Chrysler to recall the Jeep Grand Cherokee, model years 1993 to 2004, and Jeep Liberty, model years 2002 to 2007. NHTSA, in initial findings, says at least 51 people have died in the vehicles involving rear-impact crashes and fires. The problem, according to the government, is the location of the fuel tank. It is situated behind the rear axle, and slightly below the bumper. That makes it vulnerable to rupture when the vehicle is hit from behind.
Chrysler is refusing to recall the SUV's, saying that government's analysis is incomplete, and that the vehicles are safe and have no defect.
So what's a consumer to do? Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, says for Jeep owners, "there is no easy solution to this."
His group first petitioned the government more than three years ago, asking for a Jeep recall. Ditlow says the most practical fix for owners is "having a steel skid plate installed in a vehicle." That is a steel cover that can be bolted over the tank to offer extra protection. It is optional equipment, manufactured by Chrysler.
But Ditlow believes there are other safety problems with the fuel tank as well. He said the vehicles need a longer filler hose to provide extra flexibility; that's the hose that runs from the gas pump to the vehicle's fuel tank. Also he contends that the vehicles need a new check valve system to shut off the flow of gasoline if the filler hose is yanked out of the tank in a crash. Ditlow says these changes are virtually impossible for consumers to make on their own, that Chrysler needs to design and manufacture these new parts.
"The most practical and most feasible and most important thing is the skid plate," says Ditlow. "Beyond that you can't do anything until you get a recall."
Chrysler confirmed to ABC News that the skid plates are available but said they were designed to "protect certain vehicle components from damage from debris during off-roading." The automaker added, "The skid plate available for the fuel tank was not designed to protect the tank in severe rear crashes and would not provide greater protection in such crashes."
It's all very confusing for consumers. One owner of a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee told ABC News that she's has been trying to work with her mechanic on possible fixes to the fuel tank, but the whole process has been unnerving. She says it makes her just want to ditch the car.
Ditlow has some drastic advice for owners of these older-model Jeeps. "Drive your Jeep as infrequently as you can, and don't put someone in the back seat." He worries most about children in car seats, strapped in the back. If there is a fire there may not be enough time to get them out. The Center for Auto Safety says it has documented as least three cases where young children in car seats died in a blaze after the Jeeps were rear-ended.
Chrysler though insists the fuel systems "do not pose an unreasonable risk" and says it "stands behind the quality and safety of its vehicles."
The government is pushing back. David Strickland, NHTSA administrator, issued a statement calling on Chrysler "to reconsider its position and take action to protect its customers and the driving public."
Chrysler, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., is owned by Italian automaker Fiat.