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NHTSA considers reopening Jeep fire investigation [Update]

by Justin King

Following a $150 million judgement against FCA, the agency now suggests it may be unsatisfied with the trailer-hitch fix.

[Updated to include FCA statement and clarify NHTSA comments] The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering reopening an investigation into millions of Jeeps recalled over fuel-tank fire risk from rear-end collisions.

The report arrives just days after Fiat Chrysler Automobiles lost a lawsuit over the death of a four-year-old passenger in a Jeep Grand Cherokee that ignited after its fuel-tank ruptured in a collision. Chief executive Segio Marchionne made a bold deposition in the case, arguing that the Jeeps with fuel tanks mounted in the rear crush zone are safe even without a recall. The jury apparently did not agree, resulting in a $150 million judgement against the company.

"We're not satisfied with the current situation," said agency administrator Mark Rosekind in a press meting at the New York auto show, according to quotes published by The Detroit News. "Everything is on the table."

The comments do not represent the first time the agency has had an issue with FCA's handling of recalls. The company was under investigation late last year over allegations of "slow execution" and "poor communication" in a 2011 recall related to tie-rod failure in Ram trucks.

Safety advocates argue that the Jeep fire recall does not cover enough models, while the installation of trailer hitches is said to be an insufficient fix for high-speed accidents. Center for Auto Safety executive director Clarence Ditlow outlined his concerns in an open letter to Marchionne, claiming that the death rate due to fuel-tank fires in the recalled Jeeps easily exceeds any other recent defect, including the GM ignition-switch recall and exploding Takata airbags. A closer look at Ditlow's data shows that some of the cited incidents involved single-vehicle rollovers or deaths primarily blamed on impacts with trees, rather than rear-end collisions that are the focus of the government's concerns.

"Real-world data show the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee has a lower incident rate than 57 other vehicles from its era. NHTSA concluded from its investigation that the vehicles do not pose an unreasonable risk to safety," FCA said in a statement. "No events that have occurred since NHTSA closed its investigation should affect this conclusion."

The company notes that more than 720,000 trailer hitches are currently available and ready to install in recalled vehicles, and the outreach program has already sent more than 5.4 million notices via mail, e-mail and phone calls -- representing approximately three attempts per vehicle -- however only 388,000 vehicles have been brought in so far.

Most of FCA's brands have remained at the bottom of the latest quality rankings from Consumer Reports and JD Power.

Although FCA has been at the center of several recent inquiries, Rosekind argues that the entire industry still has more work to do, according to additional quotes published by The Wall Street Journal. He points to the collaborative and proactive approach in the aerospace sector as a source of inspiration, and he praised automakers for cooperating in an investigation into Takata airbag components.

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