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NHTSA declares probe of Jeep SUV fires closed

It is not the resolution many safety advocates wanted, and some pundits say it may not really be the end of the matter. But as far as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is concerned, the investigation into alleged fire risks in some 2.7 million Jeep SUVs is now officially closed.

The regulatory agency announced recently that it has ended its probe and accepted Chrysler's plan to address concerns about gas tank dangers in rear-end accidents by retrofitting suspect vehicles with trailer hitches.

Concerns about the gas tanks were first raised in 2009 by the Center for Auto Safety. The group filed a complaint claiming that the risks of fatal fires in rear-end crashes involving 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees were about four times higher than for SUVS made by other companies. The reason was because the gas tank in those vehicles is located behind the rear axle.

That sparked a deeper investigation by NHTSA into not only Grand Cherokees, but also Jeep Libertys built between 2002 and 2007. Safety advocates claimed that as many as 270 people have been killed in fiery rear-end crashes involving the two models, but Chrysler and NHTSA put the number at just over 50.

Still, last spring, NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall the vehicles. And in a move that was seen as surprising by many, Chrysler refused. The company said the record of safety of its vehicles was roughly comparable to SUVs made by other car makers.

That reportedly led to some high-level meetings and to an informal deal under which Chrysler agreed to install trailer hitches on some 1.6 million of the vehicles, a step described as providing an extra measure of protection. In return, NHTSA reportedly agreed to stop describing the SUVs as defective.

Some experts decry the deal as an abdication of NHTSA's proper regulatory responsibilities.

Source: ConsumerAffairs, "Feds close inquiry into Jeep SUV fires, Chrysler agrees to a controversial "fix"," James R. Hood, Jan. 18, 2014

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Brian Jensen

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