The “Shocker” word in that headline is from an article in USA Today. It may be a bit over-the-top, but this really is a surprising development in the area of automotive safety recalls.
The gist of the situation is that about a decade’s worth of Jeep Grand Cherokees has been found by the government to be vulnerable to catching fire in a collision. The government wants these vehicles recalled, but Chrysler has refused to take that action. Here are excerpts from the article:
Chrysler Group is taking the very rare step of defying the government by refusing to recall 2.7 million Jeeps that federal safety officials say are dangerous and should be recalled.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent the automaker a letter late Monday asking it to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty. NHTSA says the rear-mounted gas tanks in those vehicles are too vulnerable to leaking and catching fire in a rear-end crash.
Chrysler said Tuesday it “disagrees with NHTSA’s recall request,” and won’t honor it.
Government data show 44 deaths in 32 rear-end crashes and fires involving the Grand Cherokees that it wants recalled, and seven deaths in five Liberty rear-impact/fire crashes.
The infamous Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat gas tank fires in the 1970s involved 27 deaths in 38 rear-end impacts. Ford Motor recalled those in 1978.
The unusual public argument is the latest step in a Jeep probe that NHTSA began in August 2010, after a 2009 request by the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group.
“NHTSA hopes that Chrysler will reconsider its position and take action to protect its customers and the driving public,” NHTSA administrator David Stickland said in a statement late Tuesday.
Chrysler said NHTSA’s analysis is faulty. It didn’t use all the available data, and it made some incorrect comparisons, the automaker said.
The government and the automaker now will exchange more information. NHTSA eventually could take Chrysler to court in an attempt to force a recall.
“Chrysler must feel like it has a compelling reason to take such a bold stand. Since Toyota was publicly humiliated for dragging its feet on recalls just a few years ago, automakers have been quick to recall vehicles at NHTSA’s request,” says Michelle Krebs, an auto industry analyst at researcher Edmunds.com.
“It’s extraordinary for a manufacturer to refuse a recall request from NHTSA,” says Allan Kam, a former NHTSA senior enforcement attorney. He foresees the automaker having to endure “a crescendo of adverse publicity” in “what will probably be a losing battle.”
NHTSA did not identify a remedy for the tank positioning. It normally doesn’t press for a recall unless the automaker has a remedy for the alleged problem.
In fact, there might be no real “fix” for a rear-mounted fuel tank. Relocating it under the vehicle would involve re-engineering the tank and the underbody of the vehicle. Or using a different rear tank that somehow could be tucked in differently. But testing to see if a change actually improved a rate as low as one deadly incident per million registered vehicle years could be impossible.
Most newer vehicles, including Jeeps, now have tanks mounted ahead of the rear axle, suggesting that has become the acknowledged standard.
NHTSA’s telling a company to perform a recall is nearly as remarkable as Chrysler’s “no.”
Almost always, the company and the government work out an agreement that lets the automaker announce a “voluntary recall” to fix an alleged safety problem. NHTSA’s view has been that getting supposedly unsafe vehicles fixed is more important than who gets credit — though the agency isn’t shy about taking credit for the recalls later.
Automakers don’t like to be seen as arguing in favor of potentially unsafe vehicles. And they know that federal regulators could make life difficult for companies that don’t cooperate, perhaps by extraordinary scrutiny of other interactions between the automaker and the government. That would soak up more time and energy and, often, run up legal fees that an automaker prefers to avoid.