Planet Gore

NHTSA’s Jeep Witch Hunt

Detroit — Having saved Chrysler to satisfy its Big Labor pals, will the Obama administration now feed it to its tort-lobby friends?

That’s one question that pops to mind after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) announced — and Chrysler refused — the recall of 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Libertys this week, thus opening the automaker to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage suits from trial lawyers.

Another question is why would NHTSA heed a recall request from Clarence Ditlow?

Ditlow’s Center of Auto Safety petitioned the feds back in 2010 to recall the notoriously bullet-proof Jeep SUVs in a complaint eerily similar to Ditlow’s fraudulent claim against GM pickup trucks in 1993. Ditlow, you may recall (credulous reporters today don’t), applauded  a 1992 NBC Dateline demonstration that rigged the fuel tanks of GM trucks with explosives so that they would burst into flame upon impact. NBC’s program was a pawn in Ditlow’s strategy to recall 4.7 million GM trucks — at a cost to the automaker of perhaps $1 billion and untold lawsuits. Trouble is, GM fought back, forcing an NBC apology for its fakery and ultimately defeating the government’s recall as well.

Unfazed, trial lawyer–supported Ditlow was back at it in 2011, accusing Toyota of making “killing machines”  that suddenly accelerated due to electronic gremlins. That NHTSA-endorsed witch hunt was also proven unworthy by independent scientific review.

Now, with Chrysler riding the Jeep Grand Cherokee back to profitability after its 2009 taxpayer bailout, Ditlow and NHTSA are targeting Chrysler’s cash cow — demanding the recall of all 1993–2004 Cherokees and Libertys because of an alleged gas-tank design flaw.

Taking a page from GM’s offense, Chrysler has fought back — a rare response by an automaker that would just as soon pay recall costs than expose precious brands to months of media sensationalism and Congressional hearings. But NHTSA’s case against Chrysler is that weak.

“The subject vehicles are not defective and their fuel systems do not pose an unreasonable risk,” responded the Fiat-owned company in a white paper Tuesday. “These vehicles met or exceeded all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards in place at the time they were built.”

Indeed, Jeep uses NHTSA’s own data against it, citing the agency’s own Fatality Analysis Reporting System indicating 24 models that are more likely to be involved in fatal, rear-end crashes — yet none of them have been recalled. Chrysler doesn’t deny that its products have been involved in fiery crashes — resulting in tragic deaths — but it legitimately asserts that its SUVs have historically been among the safest in class.

Jeep’s strategy is admittedly risky. Yes, recall repair costs run an estimated $500 million–$1 billion — but it is also risking exposing an iconic brand that almost single-handedly brought the company back from extinction. Still. Republicans now control the House of Representatives — meaning no show trials in front of California Democrat Henry Waxman’s Energy and Commerce Committee that the NHTSA used to lynch Toyota.

No automaker has challenged a federal recall since Chrysler did it in 1998 to protect its mid-size sedan brands from spurious NHTSA seatbelt-safety claims. The Detroit carmaker won that battle — and figures to win this one too.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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