Chrysler Group LLC's decision to fight the U.S. government's request that it recall 2.7 million Jeep SUVs for fire risks because the fuel tank is behind the rear axle is the latest chapter in the auto safety agency's scrutiny of gas tank positioning since the late 1970s.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given Chrysler until June 18 to formally respond to the recall request for 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Libertys. NHTSA says fires caused by gasoline leaking from punctured gas tanks in rear-end crashes have killed 51 people. Depending on Chrysler's response, the safety agency will then decide whether to issue a formal finding and then convene a public hearing -- a final step before ordering a recall.
NHTSA has repeatedly investigated gas tanks over the years. In its request letter seeking the Jeep recall, NHTSA noted that in 2002 and 2003, only the Jeeps and the Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Mustang had fuel tanks located behind the axle.
In 2002, NHTSA spent 10 months investigating whether Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers should be recalled because of the danger of high-speed crashes.
From the early 1980s until 2002, 18 officers were killed in 29 fires when Crown Victoria gas tanks ruptured and caught fire, often after being struck in the rear in a high-speed crash. NHTSA determined the Crown Victoria police car exceeds federal standards for fuel system safety and found the rate of fires was no greater than with Chevrolet Caprice police cars.
NHTSA's decision came days after Ford agreed to pay about $50 million for the installation of shields around the gas tanks on some 350,000 Crown Victoria police cars to reduce fire risk after a rear-end crash.
Police vehicles are particularly vulnerable to high-speed rear-end collisions because they are often parked at the side of a freeway or street after stopping speeders or assisting stranded motorists. Ford also came under pressure from Congress to issue gas tank shields to all Crown Victoria sedans used as taxi cabs, following the burning death of a New York City cab driver in 2005. Ford also offered the kits to owners of Lincoln Town Car limousines and made the kits available for purchase by private owners of the Crown Vic, Lincoln Town Car and Mercury Grand Marquis for $105, plus labor costs.
Prior to the 1970s, fuel tanks in most cars and trucks were located behind the rear axle. As NHTSA noted in its letter to Chrysler, the issue came to public attention with Ford's recall of 1.5 million Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat cars in 1978 after 38 rear crashes resulted in 27 deaths and 24 injuries. "It was a well-publicized, terrible tragedy that people burned to death in these vehicles," NHTSA said in its letter to Chrysler.
NHTSA noted that in August 1978, Chrysler said in an internal memo that it would place the gas tank of its new K-car forward of the axle, as it had done with the Omni and Horizon cars. "This location provides the protection of all the structure behind the rear wheels -- as well as the rear wheel themselves -- to protect the tank from being damaged in a collision," said the memo to Chrysler's head of product development.
Chrysler also moved its gas tanks from behind the rear axle with the 1987 Dodge Dakota truck and 1998 Dodge Durango SUV. NHTSA cited a 1993 study of fire-related deaths from 1977 to 1989 that concluded relocating gas tanks had a substantial effect on the reduction of fire deaths
Chrysler has defended its vehicles as complying with all federal safety standards, but NHTSA said Chrysler "contravened industry trends, as well as Chrysler's practices in non-Jeep vehicles, to place fuel tanks in less vulnerable locations." And NHTSA says even if Chrysler met safety standards, it doesn't mean the vehicles don't pose an unreasonable risk to safety. Even if Chrysler meets the safety standard governing fuel system integrity, it "does not require NHTSA to ignore deadly problems."
In 1994, NHTSA ordered a recall of up to 6 million 1972-1987 General Motors pickups with side-saddle fuel tanks due to vulnerability in severe side crashes, a recall estimated to cost $1 billion at the time. The tanks were located under the cab and bed outside the frame rails. The Transportation Department said the trucks may have caused 150 deaths.
But in a settlement just days before a public hearing, NHTSA withdrew the recall request and in exchange, GM agreed to pay $51.3 million for safety programs. The automaker ultimately settled a class-action lawsuit in 1996 for $5 billion, which consisted of $1,000 vouchers to 5 million owners.