StaffAllpar HomeMore NewsCarsTrucksUpcomingRepairsTest drives

Behind the gas-tank recall request

by David Zatz on

News analysis

Last October, Jenelle Embrey’s old Jeep Grand Cherokee, stopped in traffic, was rammed by a tractor-trailer truck moving at an estimated 65 mph. She, her father, and a friend escaped; but they were unable to save the other occupants, her friend’s mother and another friend.  They died in the resulting blaze. Embrey was quoted as saying, “Something has to be done.”

Quite a bit actually has been done since her Grand Cherokee was built. The Federal government doubled the impact standards for gas tank ruptures. The tanks were moved when the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2008 Jeep Liberty were launched. The tanks have been improved as technology advanced. (The proposed recall would affect 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys.)

Some have proposed that former Republican Congressman Ray LaHood, the DOT chief, acted out of partisanship, since President Obama is identified with the rescue of Chrysler, but this seems unlikely; LaHood was known, while in Congress, for being a mediator, not a dirty fighter. The more likely explanation is human: a woman with a traumatic event and a horrific story is much more attention-worthy than mere dull facts. (Proof of this is the mainstream news media’s decision to emphasize the details of her story while ignoring most of the key information).

The Center for Auto Safety has been campaigning for this, but that organization, under Clarence Ditlow, has not established much credibility to us; too many of their campaigns appear to be arbitrary, as this one is.

NHTSA is not asking for the recall of all vehicles built in those years with similar designs. They are not asking for recall of the worst vehicles of those years. They are asking for a recall of a specific vehicle because of one specific accident, involving a heavy vehicle ramming a stopped light vehicle at 65 mph.

Ms. Embrey and the Center for Auto Safety are not asking for tougher licensing of commercial drivers, or better brakes on commercial rigs, or for higher standards on cars moving forward, or even for a global recall of all vehicles made in the past which cannot withstand such a collision. They are choosing a single vehicle based on fragmentary investigation, and seem to be demanding a remediation which may not save a single life. Better brakes on commercial trucks might save many lives; recalling old Jeeps is unlikely to do the same.

37 Jeeps out of 2.7 million have caught fire during a violent accident. Many of the crashes could have resulted in deaths regardless of the vehicle design, since they all seem to involve high speeds. Americans suffer around 35,000 traffic deaths per year, with this issue, across all the years, responsible for an estimated 51 deaths.

Allpar member Jeff2KPatriotBlue, who worked for an inspection/enforcement government agency for ten years, noted that this was a request, not an order. “A request typically requires a response, but not action. Sometimes an agency will send a request to satisfy pressure from interest groups and politicians.   ’Yes, we did something to address your concerns.’ An order has to be solid enough to satisfy a court challenge. After the response to a request, the agency can write a letter saying, ‘We have reviewed the information you have submitted, and consider this issue to be closed.’”

NHTSA’s motivation is likely to become clear over the future weeks, as they provide their own response to Chrysler’s.  Of note, they avoided the use of the term “defect.” While reporters have been using that word freely, there is no defect claimed by NHTSA. Instead, NHTSA is saying that the location of the gas tank may have been one factor.

Bill Cawthon analyzed the NHTSA’s public source documents and did not find a conclusion as to what issue might be the “problem,” or how Chrysler could fix it. The request to Chrysler was, essentially, to find and fix something.

For the news media, this is a natural ratings bonanza; many in the public loathe Chrysler for various reasons, including the assisted bankruptcy, and feeding anger is good for ratings. Likewise, crashes are big human-interest draws, and so are stories of outraged women on personal crusades for justice, though in this case the castles are windmills.

From Chrysler’s perspective, this is a lose-lose situation. Conforming to the recall would bring a myriad of lawsuits for absurd sums; it would be admitting guilt, in essence. This would be far worse than “doing a Ford,” e.g., putting in an inexpensive and of-dubious-value shield before the gas tank and calling it quits.

What Chrysler has done was issue a brief paper in which they point out that Jeeps are less likely to be involved in fires than other cars from the same period that are not under investigation, and that their vehicles exceeded Federal standards. This is a risky stance, fighting emotion with fact, and it rarely works out well for those who have the facts; television news programs glanced over Chrysler’s arguments last night and focused on the tragedy, leaving many viewers with the impression that the current Grand Cherokee is unsafe. That must be gratifying to heavy TV advertiser Ford, whose Explorer has not been doing as well as many expected in the face of Grand Cherokee’s success.

Chrysler may not have done itself much of a favor with its white paper, which ends with an unreadable (unless blown up) graph that includes a category for “Dodge Aries/Plymouth Acclaim 1984-1989” at one end, and for the “AMC Talon” on the other. (The two vehicles in the 2002-07 period with the lowest rate of fatal crashes were those K-cars and the Dodge Intrepid/Chrysler Concorde.) With two obvious errors, it’s easy to dismiss a graph, but two classification errors should not distract the reader from noticing that the graph does not prove anything.

Yes, Grand Cherokees and Libertys were in the middle of a set of cars and SUVs in fatal accidents, but do we really believe that was due to design? That the Pontiac Fiero was somehow more resistant to crashes than the Buick Roadmaster? That the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant were safer than the Jeep Cherokee?  That the Grand Cherokee wasn’t nearly as safe as the Toyota Supra? The chart merely shows that, if you value your life, you should avoid the Eagle (AMC?) Talon/Mitsubishi Eclipse AWD, Isuzu Impulse, and Toyota MR2, and perhaps find a nice Dodge Intrepid.

This kind of logic endangers any credibility Chrysler might have in the argument, and may be one reason why the most media did not represent their arguments at all.  What we would need is an examination of the percentage of fatalities in vehicles in this type of accident, and Chrysler is not providing it. They did separate the cars in their list by design.

The argument that “we met all safety standards” is a good one if you care about the industry’s financial health, but it doesn’t end the discussion in any way. Meeting all safety standards is considered by most people to be a good starting point. As one example, if you plant a small bomb next to the gas tank in every car, which has a one in 10,000 chance of exploding when you start the car, you have met all federal safety standards, but have not made a safe car. Chrysler’s twin recent recalls are both for issues that have nothing to do with federal standards (activation of safety devices in a slow rollover, and rubbing of a transmission hose by a steering part). The safety standards are a starting point; from there, NHTSA is supposed to use its judgement. It works the same way at NHTSA as it does at the FAA — Boeing isn’t told they can keep flying planes that catch fire regularly, just because they passed all the regs at the time they were built.

Pointing out that low-impact crashes are rare is a good argument, but again, not convincing on its own. A better argument, also put forward in the white paper, was the fact that all but five fatal crashes in Grand Cherokees and Libertys under investigation involved high energy crashes; in the accident that caused this recall request, crash energy was 23 times the normal threshold.  78% of the incidents involved impacts that exceed today’s requirements (which doubled in 2008).

Chrysler also pointed out, fairly enough, that NHTSA excluded many models which had a higher rate of problems than the targeted Jeeps — 24 of them in the case of Liberty, 54 in the case of Grand Cherokee. Chrysler found that NHTSA had excluded its own database when performing the investigation.

The legal-precedent argument noted by Larry Vellequette of Automotive News is troubling; once you start saying companies have to retroactively obey new safety standards (including those not actually implemented in the law), where does it end? If I am killed in my 1974 Valiant, can my wife successfully lobby for a recall of 1968-76 A-bodies to have better brakes or airbags fitted? Should she be demanding that Toyota put active-restraint devices in their large SUVs because her father was killed in an accident (also with a big rig), with the 12 airbags all working but his seat belt not attached? (This is not a particularly strong argument, though, because automakers are expected to go beyond meeting regulations; the rule is that the cars should be safe, not bureaucracy-compliant. See “bomb argument” earlier.)

Unfortunately, Chrysler’s valid arguments are presented with their invalid ones, and other automakers’ past arrogance and pretense will work against them. While Chrysler itself has not had a Pinto case with a “smoking gun” memo, as GM and Ford and arguably Toyota have, they are tarred by the public with the same brush. 

We believe, after looking at the evidence on both sides, that drivers of Grand Cherokees and Libertys are probably about as safe as those of most other cars in similar accidents. When you’re hit by a big rig, it’s not going to be pretty; and if you are unwilling to risk that, the best answer is a car made after 2008.

Newest Ram Built to Serve models honor the U.S. Air Force

Former Ram chief engineer Michael J. Cairns
2021 Ram 1500 Rebel navigation screen
What’s new for ’21? The big list of changes

More Mopar Car
and Truck News

Some popular Allpar pages

Dodge Demon

2018 Wrangler JL

Staff details/contactsTerms of ServiceInformation is presented to the best of our knowledge. Plans change and sometimes mistakes are made. Decisions or purchases made based on this site's verbiage or images are done at the reader's own risk. Also see the Allpar News archives, 1997-2008 • Copyright © VerticalScope Inc. All rights reserved. • Mopar, Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, HEMI, and certain other names are trademarks of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.