Today is Chrysler's deadline to respond to questions from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about its slow response to installing trailer hitches on 1.56 million Jeep Liberty and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs.
More than a year after agreeing to install trailer hitches the automaker has not begun the repairs on 2002 through 2007 Jeep Libertys and 1993 through 1998 Grand Cherokees. The Jeeps in question have rear-mounted fuel tanks that the safety agency determined put the vehicles at a higher risk for rear-end explosions than other SUVs.
The regulatory agency questions why Chrysler has only hired one supplier to make the trailer hitches, and why it took so long for production to begin. NHTSA also is asking for numerous documents related to the process and internal financial projections of the program's estimated cost.
According to NHTSA, Chrysler chose a supplier in December and did not begin making the trailer hitches until May, nearly 12 months after the automaker agreed to the safety campaign.
Chrysler said it has hired more than one supplier and would begin telling owners to bring their SUVs to dealerships in August to have trailer hitches installed.
Chrysler earlier this month said crash test data with trailer hitches, "reflects Chrysler Group's longstanding position --supported in the public record by real-world data -- that the vehicles are not defective. They are among the safest in their peer groups and met or exceeded the standards in effect at the time they were first sold."
NHTSA conducted crash tests of the SUVs with trailer hitches and concluded that they do improve safety in low-speed crashes.
In more recent models of both vehicles, the fuel tanks were redesigned and placed in new positions, but the company said the design change had nothing to do with safety. Chrysler stopped making the Jeep Liberty in 2013.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Automotive Research, questioned NHTSA's crash test results and said additional crashes have occurred while Chrysler has moved slowly to take action.
"To date, not a single Jeep has been remedied under this recall while at least four people have died and two more have been seriously burned in Jeep fire crashes," Ditlow said, "while Chrysler and NHTSA continue to wrangle over the details of the year-old recall."
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