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October 08, 2009

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Andy Hoffman

After we posted this, Chrysler Spokesman Mike Palese sent us the company’s official response. Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, then shared his response to that response. Both are posted below…

Mike Palese, Chrysler:

The petition filed with NHTSA by the Center for Automotive Safety presents a simplistic, unsubstantiated review of raw accident data. Indeed, its conclusions are flawed as they are based solely on a database that does not discriminate the cause or origin of a fire. Nor does it contain accurate critical real world accident data that takes into account significant factors that influence crash outcomes, such as the speed of a rear impact and the weight of the vehicles involved. The petition's conclusions and comparisons are, therefore, invalid and their use to draw alarming conclusions about a product with an excellent safety record is misguided and irresponsible. Statistically, rear impacts that result in serious injury are rare occurrences. Chrysler Group is confident that a proper study which considered all factors in all collisions including rear collisions with fire would show that the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees perform as well as or better than other vehicles in their class. The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards and, as noted, has an excellent safety record. There are many millions of 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees on the road whose owners and families continue to enjoy tens of millions of miles and hours of safe vehicle operation each year. While Chrysler Group designs vehicles to protect the greatest number of motorists in the greatest number of accidents, unfortunately accidents do occur, can be dangerous and, sadly, can sometimes cause injuries and even deaths.

Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety:

On seeing the brand new Grand Cherokee in 1993 when it was first introduced, I asked a Chrysler executive how they could possibly put the fuel tank in such a vulnerable location – the answer, “It meets 301 [the Safety Standard for Fuel Systems].” My response – “So did the Ford Pinto.”

As the group that got the infamous Pinto recalled for exploding gas tanks in rear end crashes using the data base (FARS) that Chrysler criticizes, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) is confident that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is even worse than the Ford Pinto since it not only has a fuel tank located behind the rear axle like the Pinto but also has a plastic tank which extends below the bumper. The Fatal Analysis Reporting System or FARS is based on Police Reports with specific details on the crash including the make, model and year of all vehicles, impact speed and most harmful event in the crash. In the crash that burned Jose Sierra to death and tragically burned the Austin sisters, FARS shows that it was a 2700 pound Toyota MR2 that ruptured the fuel tank of a 4100 pound 1997 Grand Cherokee.

FARS also reveals a 2004 Toyota Sienna rear ended Susan Kline’s 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The survivable crash jammed the doors on Mrs. Kline’s Grand Cherokee trapping her in the flames as she frantically scrambled from the driver to the passenger side in a vain effort to get out before she was burned to death. With its low front end, the Sienna went under the Jeep’s bumper and impacted the exposed fuel tank.

The government relies on FARS in its recall program as did Chrysler in defense of its minivans that killed 37 occupants when the liftgate opened in rear impacts. FARS is better today than when the Pinto was recalled because it now identifies the Most Harmful Event in a crash. The Grand Cherokee has been involved in 44 fatal crashes with 64 deaths where fire is the Most Harmful Event. This excludes one crash between a 1996 Grand Cherokee and a classic 1971 Ford Mustang which also had a fuel tank behind the rear axle. Ford moved the tank on the Mustang in front of the rear axle in the mid-1990's to prevent more fatal fire crashes just as Chrysler was introducing the Grand Cherokee with the deadly behind the rear axle design.

There is consensus in the automotive world that placing fuel tanks is safer. In 2003 in commenting on the last Ford (the Crown Victoria which is no longer sold to consumers) to have a behind the axle fuel tank, Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine, said that location of the gas tank behind the rear axle is "no longer regarded as state of the art. That's a vanishing example. I haven't seen a new car designed that way in ages." Michael Harrigan, then chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineers' Fuel Systems Standards Committee which sets industry standards on fuel systems said most passenger cars by 2003 had fuel tanks located between the front and rear suspensions. "The perception is that it is a more protected location," Harrigan said.

Chrysler knows full well the fuel tank on the Grand Cherokee is likely to explode in rear impacts and rollovers because it has been settling lawsuits with confidentiality agreements. CAS calls on Chrysler to open its files on Grand Cherokee fire crashes so the public can see what Chrysler knows – being in the wrong place at the wrong time in a Grand Cherokee can result in a horrible fire death.

When Chrysler went through bankruptcy, one of its biggest priorities was to wipe out all product liability claims in the past and in the future for vehicles like the Grand Cherokee sold before the bankruptcy. Chrysler spokesperson Michael Palese said, "The other option - liquidation - would have had far more dire consequences for employees, retirees, dealers, suppliers and creditors - including unsecured tort claimants.” Since then Chrysler has recanted and agreed to accept product liability claims for crashes occurring after bankruptcy because consumers stopped buying Chrysler vehicles. Chrysler sales are still down compared to other companies which haven’t shirked their product liability claims and will stay down until they recall defective vehicles like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and accept all product liability claims.

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