It’s the same safety issue that saddled Ford’s Pinto with a notorious legacy that continues to this day, and Jeep can’t seem to put it in its rear-view.
In 2013, at the urging of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles issued a recall for 1.56 million Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee SUVs to correct a serious flaw. The vehicles’ gas tanks, located between the rear axle and bumper, had proven especially vulnerable to rupturing in rear-end collisions. A total of 26 deaths were recorded at the time of the recall.
After installing trailer hitches on each affected vehicle, FCA felt it had the issue well in hand. Unfortunately, the fires continued, as did the deaths. Now, it’s happened again.
According to Bloomberg, Vicki Hill, 58, died this week after her 2007 Jeep Liberty burst into flames after being rammed from behind by a Buick. Hill’s vehicle was stopped at an Ohio intersection at the time. The Liberty in question — among the newest of the recalled vehicles — was outfitted with a trailer hitch, FCA records show.
FCA’s recall covered Libertys built from 2002 to 2007, plus 1993-1998 Grand Cherokees. Not surprisingly, news of Hill’s death has safety advocates claiming Jeep’s recall didn’t fix a deadly problem.
The Ralph Nader-founded Center for Auto Safety, a D.C.-based nonprofit group, is renewing its calls for a new investigation into the fires. “Our fear then and our fear today remains to be that the fix is not sufficient,” CAS executive director Jason Levine told Bloomberg.
The organization began calling for an investigation in 2011 after three CAS-commissioned tests performed on mid-90s Grand Cherokees revealed a tendency for fuel tank rupture in 50-mile-per-hour rear-end collisions. A Ford Explorer of the same vintage held up after a 70 mph impact from a Ford Taurus test vehicle. Two years later, CAS presented the NHTSA with a white paper illustrating its concerns over the Grand Cherokee and Liberty.
By this time, the affected models were on their way to a recall. FCA redesigned the Liberty for the 2008 model year, and its Grand Cherokee had long since relocated its fuel tank ahead of the rear axle. However, the old vehicle remained, now outfitted with a solution CAS called “inadequate.”
Following the recall, former CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow told The New York Times that the vehicles remained vulnerable. In its letter to the NHTSA, the automaker claimed the center-mounted hitch would “incrementally improve the performance of certain of the subject vehicles in certain types of low-speed impacts.” Ditlow argued the tanks were still susceptible to angled rear-end crashes. Also, heavy braking could cause the impacting vehicle’s nose to dive under the Jeep’s high rear bumper.
It isn’t known how fast the Buick that hit Hill’s Liberty was travelling at the time of impact. The NHTSA, which closed its investigation in 2014, claims it is monitoring the issue and “will take action as appropriate.” CAS began calling for another federal investigation early last year.
When contacted by Bloomberg, FCA spokesman Eric Mayne issued condolences on behalf of the company. However, barring NHTSA intervention, the fire issue seems closed. “The 2007 Jeep Liberty meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards,” Mayne said, “including those that test fuel-system integrity in rear impacts.”