NHTSA Surrenders on Chrysler Recall

by Henry Payne

“Chrysler Group reversed course and agreed to a recall of 2.7 million Jeeps Tuesday,” reported CNN Tuesday in a story typical of media coverage, “giving in to the government’s request in the final hours before a deadline.

No it didn’t.

In fact, the opposite was true. After targeting Chrysler for a massive, 2.7 million vehicle recall of 1993–2004 Jeeps Grand Cherokees and Libertys for allegedly defective fuel-tank design, the feds surrendered after Jeep-parent Chrysler put up rare resistance. An automaker had not challenged a government recall since 1998.

As a face-saving compromise, NHTSA abandoned the recall, dismissing any claims that the Jeeps were defective (a crucial blow to tort lawyers who pursued the recall through their proxy “pubic-safety” groups) and allowing Chrysler to voluntarily recall 1.6 million vehicles on its own terms in order to satisfy any customer concerns. That is, customers may bring their vehicles in for a determination as to whether they need repair.

Indeed, the Jeep recall will not address fuel tanks at all — but just offer customers trailer hitches which can add rear-end strengthening for low-speed crashes. That in itself is a key government admission that the 51 fiery deaths it initially claimed were the fault of defective fuel-tank design were, in fact, the result of freakish, high-speed collisions that no vehicle could survive.

“Chrysler Group will conduct a voluntary campaign with respect to the vehicles in question that, in addition to a visual inspection of the vehicle will, if necessary, provide an upgrade to the rear structure of the vehicle to better manage crash forces in low-speed impacts,” read Chrysler’s press release Tuesday afternoon. “Chrysler Group’s analysis of the data confirms that these vehicles are not defective and are among the safest in the peer group. Nonetheless, Chrysler Group recognizes that this matter has raised concerns for its customers and wants to take further steps, in coordination with NHTSA, to provide additional measures to supplement the safety of its vehicles.”

Take that, feds.

Yet initial press reports interpreted this as an about-face, part of a pattern of sloppy reporting that ignores the “safety” lobby’s history of auto scaremongering.

NHTSA’s shallow case was telegraphed by its provenance.

The recall was initiated in 2010 by trial-lawyer funded Clarence Ditlow, president of the Center for Auto Safety. This is the same Clarence Ditlow who championed the fraudulent 1992 NBC Dateline rigging of GM trucks with tiny rockets so that they would burst into flame — helping doom NHTSA’s suspiciously similar recall of 4.7 million GM vehicles for gas-tank issues.

Fighting government recalls is a fraught exercise for automakers who risk exposing brands to months of bad press about fiery fatalities. Those deaths are horrible, but Chrysler had strong data showing that their vehicles were safer than most. “The subject vehicles are not defective and their fuel systems do not pose an unreasonable risk,” says the Auburn Hills–based company. “These vehicles met or exceeded all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards in place at the time they were built.”

Following its failed witch hunts against GM in 1993 and Toyota last year, the Chrysler settlement is another rebuke to NHTSA.

Recall Jeep? Recall NHTSA and defective media coverage.