National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator, Mark Rosekind, has indicated that the nation’s top automotive regulator may take a more aggressive stance toward Fiat-Chrysler following a massive $150 million judgment against the company over the burning death of 4 year-old Remi Walden due to an exploding gas tank on his Aunt’s 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Rosekind fired a warning shot to Fiat-Chrysler, speaking last week at the New York International Auto Show, saying “We’re not satisfied with the current situation so we are looking for every avenue that would be appropriate for us to take action.” Many critics may find his words to be empty, too late, and an example of track-covering, given the fact that the crash occurred while the NHTSA was conducting a multi-year investigation of Fiat-Chrysler’s placement of the gas tank on Jeep Cherokee models, including the one involved in the tragedy. The investigation was dropped in 2013 after accepting Fiat’s voluntary recall solution of installing trailer hitches on rear-bumpers as a countermeasure to the poor gas tank placement.
Already under-fire for allegations of cronyism as well as recent criticism of lax oversight over other life-threatening product issues, Rosekind’s statements may indicate a shift in urgency, but it will take an abundance of action to convince skeptics. The Walden case highlighted one of the most controversial decisions that the NHTSA has made to date. Despite evidence demonstrating that the placement of the gas tanks on several Jeep models being dangerous and issuing recalls on earlier and later Jeep models, Fiat-Chrysler was able to convince the NHTSA to not issue a mandatory recall on the particular model from the Walden tragedy. With the agency finding that the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokees “do not pose an unreasonable risk to safety,” Fiat-Chrysler instead launched a “customer service campaign” for the 1.2 million 1999-2004 Jeep Cherokees sold.
The NHTSA has acknowledged that the hitches won’t offer much protection in high-speed crashes, and they have also been critical of the pace of the fixes, with only an estimated 388,000 vehicles being fitted with the hitch solution to date. Also, subsequent deaths have occurred since 2012 related to the exploding Jeep gas tank problem, as well as with the Walden jury’s statement that Fiat-Chrysler acted with “reckless or wanton disregard for human life,” it would appear that the NHTSA is upping the urgency of the situation. The sequence of events could either be forcing Rosekind’s hand, or it is providing the agency with an opportunity to correct a short-sighted mistake. A re-opened investigation could result in a mandatory recall of all related vehicles, and it could even force the company to formally declare the vehicles as defective. Indicating a desire for a culture change, Rosekind suggested that automakers could learn from the airline industry, which he considers to be much more proactive than reactive when it comes to customer safety.
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