Chrysler’s ‘Hitch’ Solution Runs into a Hitch

Chrysler’s unusu­al response to a NHTSA recall of about 1.6 mil­lion Jeep vehi­cles over rear-impact fire haz­ards hits a snag with safe­ty groups.

Even the exec in charge of engi­neer­ing at the time cites oppo­si­tion to the fix.

Chrysler’s response to a recall of about 1.6 mil­lion Jeep Lib­er­ty and Grand Chero­kee mod­els over rear-impact fire haz­ards depends on the pro­tec­tion a trail­er hitch would pro­vide for the gas tank. But tow hitch­es were not designed to pro­tect the gas tank, accord­ing to the exec­u­tive who was in charge of engi­neer­ing when Jeeps like the Grand Chero­kee were designed.

In addi­tion, safe­ty groups say that before let­ting Chrysler use such an unusu­al rem­e­dy, crash tests should be com­mis­sioned by the Nation­al High­way Traf­fic Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion — which has no safe­ty stan­dard detail­ing the con­struc­tion and strength of trail­er hitch­es, part of what automak­ers typ­i­cal­ly call a tow pack­age.

“The tow pack­age does not pro­tect the tank,” François J. Cas­taing, Chrysler’s vice pres­i­dent for engi­neer­ing in 1988–96, said in a 2011 depo­si­tion. “The skid plate under­neath only pro­tects the tank from stones from the ground.”

Though Chrysler has agreed to a recall of some mod­els, its posi­tion, explained in a fil­ing with N.H.T.S.A., is that the Jeeps are safe and that the fatal­i­ties occurred in such severe crash­es that no S.U.V. of that era would have done bet­ter.

The safe­ty agency dis­agrees and has said it believes the vehi­cles “con­tain defects relat­ed to motor vehi­cle safe­ty.” The agency says it is aware of 51 deaths in rear-impact crash­es that result­ed in fires.

The Cen­ter for Auto Safe­ty, whose 2009 request to N.H.T.S.A. to inves­ti­gate the fire issue led to the recall, said its research found 161 deaths in 115 crash­es that involved fires result­ing from rear-impact col­li­sions or rollovers. The cen­ter says a fuel-filler hose on the Grand Chero­kee is also prone to pulling loose, some­thing the safe­ty agency did not inves­ti­gate.




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