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Recall Controversy Leaves Jeep Owners Mystified

If there’s a chance your car could catch on fire, shouldn’t you do something about it? The surprising answer just might turn out to be – no.

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The Chrysler Group is now in an awkward confrontation with the U.S. government over alleged defects in the fuel system of as many as 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty SUVs. The problem sounds scary but the chance of such an incident occurring seems to be remote. The controversy also entails political grandstanding and technical complexity – yet Jeep owners might be able to simply shrug the whole thing off.

The standoff began in 2009 with claims by the Center for Auto Safety, a private watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader, that at least 112 deaths had been caused by defects in the fuel systems of Grand Cherokees from model years 1993 to 2004, and Libertys from 2002 to 2007. The problem, according to the center, is a fuel filler hose that disconnects too easily during a rear collision, spewing fuel that could catch on fire and turn the vehicles into “rolling firebombs,” as the center called them. In 2009, CAS asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate, while calling on Chrysler to fix the problem without waiting for a government mandate.

A long investigation

NHTSA began a long investigation, and on June 3, 2013, finally asked Chrysler to initiate a recall to fix the problem. NHTSA linked 51 deaths since 1993 to fires in rear-impact collisions in the suspect vehicles, which produced a fatality incident rate more than twice the average for other SUVs.

Auto recalls are common and usually uneventful, with NHTSA typically asking for one when it identifies a safety problem, automakers complying and car owners getting their vehicles fixed at a dealership at no charge. Recalls tend to happen quickly if safety experts detect an urgent problem, since regulators don't want to be accused of dragging their feet and automakers don't want to increase their exposure to litigation.

In this case, however, Chrysler refused to initiate a recall, while publishing its own analysis arguing that all Jeeps in question comply with federal safety requirements. Chrysler also said most of the crashes cited by regulators were high-speed collisions, suggesting the vehicles would have been destroyed whether there was a fire or not.

To buttress its claims, Chrysler published an intriguing table showing at least 24 other models that had higher rates of rear-impact fatal collisions involving a fire than the Jeeps, including the 1994–2004 Ford Mustang, the 1989–1998 Chevrolet Geo Tracker, the 1997–2006 Chevy Corvette and the 2003–2005 Hummer H2. At least three of those 24 vehicles had a fuel-system design similar to that in the Jeeps. Yet none of those models, Chrysler pointed out, has been recalled for fire problems.

A very technical science

Auto safety is a very technical science; correlations or observations that might seem obvious are often disproved upon thorough analysis. Numerous reports of sudden acceleration in the Toyota Prius in 2009 and 2010, for instance, were initially blamed on buggy software, but a government investigation found no such problem and pinned most of the blame on driver error. In the Chrysler case, both sides could technically be correct. The Jeeps could have a higher-than-average rate of fires, as NHTSA contends, since there have to be outliers at either end of the bell curve. Chrysler could also be right when it says its vehicles meet or exceed all safety rules, since such regulations typically represent a minimum standard that's still considered adequate.

A lot is at stake, however. NHTSA is still recovering from safety controversies in 2010 in which Toyota seemed to be lording it over a supplicant regulator, until the problems became public and both organizations ended up deeply embarrassed. So the safety agency could be trying to act tougher than it might have otherwise.

Chrysler is still on the mend from its 2009 bankruptcy filing and a bailout aided by $11 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds. It's also hoping to go public sometime over the next several months, making it very hesitant to take on the estimated $300 million to $500 million cost of a wide-ranging recall. Beyond that, agreeing to a recall would imply that Chrysler acknowledges a safety problem, making it more susceptible to civil lawsuits by victims of fires and their family members.

The most likely outcome may be litigation, which could take years and leave Jeep owners wondering what they should do in the meantime. “Consumers who have one of these Jeeps are really in limbo,” says Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at car-research site Edmunds.com. “There’s not a lot they can do. Chrysler hasn’t said there’s a problem, so going to the dealer to get it fixed isn’t an option.”

The best prescription may be watchful waiting, until there’s a legal outcome that provides guidance about what Jeep owners ought to do. Even if the Jeeps in question are more prone to fires than other vehicles, the odds of such an accident happening are still remarkably small. In its letter to Chrysler, NHTSA estimated the maximum fatality rate for the Jeeps is one for every 1 million registered-vehicle years. In plain English, that means there would be a 100% chance of being in such an accident if you drove your Jeep for 1 million years. If you only drove it for 10 years, the odds would drop to around 0.001%, or roughly 1 in 100,000. That’s not as good as 1 in 200,000 — the rate for driving a “safer” SUV for a decade — but you’d still be far more likely to die in a rollover, a side-impact crash or a head-on collision. Or, for that matter, from poisoning or a fall.

Of course, Jeep owners could also ditch their vehicles, which might make sense, since many are more than 10 years old and probably ready to be replaced. Or owners could reserve their aging Jeeps purely for off-roading, which is their forte, anyhow. On the trail, at least, there aren’t too many other vehicles you have to worry about rear-ending you.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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