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Feds Investigating Fire Risk With Millions Of Jeeps

As many as 3 million SUVs could be targeted.

by on Aug.25, 2010

NHTSA begins an investigation into potential fire risks with the 1992 - 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

A preliminary investigation has been opened by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into reports that the plastic fuel tanks on as many as 3 million Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs could be prone to rupture during a rear-end collision, creating a potential fire risk.

The investigation does not ensure a recall will follow, but if NHTSA does order a fix, it would be one of the year’s largest, dwarfed only by the pair of recalls by Toyota to repair problems that can cause sudden acceleration problems.

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The Jeep investigation was triggered by a complaint by the consumer advocacy group, the Center for Auto Safety, (CAS) which argues that the placement of the fuel tank in 1993 through 2004 Grand Cherokees, behind the rear axle and below the back bumper, means it is vulnerable to damage in a rear-end collision.  Should it leak, a ruptured or damaged tank would create a fire hazard following a collision.

The potential problem does not involve the brand-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, nor the outgoing model, launched in 2005.  CAS data indicate the older Jeeps have a fatal fire rate six times higher than that of the more recent Grand Cherokee – and about four times higher than competing sport-utility vehicles.

In all, the consumer group advised NHTSA of 254 fatalities in 172 separate fatal fire crashes involving the suspect Jeeps between 1992 and 2008.

NHTSA cautions that such numbers do not automatically confirm a defect exists but it will now move forward to see if its own research shows an unreasonable risk with the Jeep fuel tank.  If so, the automaker would be forced to find a way to either move the tank – a difficult process – or reduce its risk of being damaged in a collision.

A vulnerable fuel tank brings to mind the problems incurred by the old Ford Pinto, which was determined to have a similar risk in rear-end collisions.  At the time, data indicated Ford decided to skip a step that could reduce the risk of fire because of the additional costs.  Earlier this year, Toyota was forced to take steps to address a problem with potentially leaky fuel tanks on HS250h model.  It temporarily ordered a halt to sales of the dedicated luxury hybrid while searching for a fix of its own.

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