Jeep Fires Up Literally

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Jeep Fires

Jenelle Embrey experienced something that would change her life, and hopefully change the fate of others. In 2012, Embrey’s father, Harry Hamilton asked her to go for a ride to show off his new PT Cruiser. While sitting in a traffic jam on Insterstate 81 in Virginia, Embrey and her father were rear-ended by a tractor trailer which pushed the Cruiser into the guard rail. As they stood on the highway, Embrey and her father noticed a Jeep with a small fire across the road. After discovering that the doors were jammed, Hamilton busted out a window and pulled 18-year-old Zackary Santor out of the window. The second teenager in the car, 18-year-old Acoye Breckenridge was pinned under a collapsed rear seat, and the driver Heather Lee Santor, was dazed by the accident. Hamilton was unable to get either of them out before the car burst into flames. Hamilton was barely able to escape the flames. He, the escaped teen, and Embrey watched as the Jeep burn with the mom and teen inside.

Embrey remembers hearing the police say that last year they lost a family to a fuel fire that was driving the same exact vehicle. Enraged, Embrey decided to do something about it. Out of her own pocket, she bought three billboards in the Frederick County Virginia area which show a Jeep Grand Cherokee in flames. The text on the billboards says,”Help Save Innocent Families Jeeps.” Embrey, who works as a medical transcriptionist and bookkeeper, keeps her second job in order to fund her Jeep campaign. She is hoping that the graphic portrayal on the billboards will get motorists to sign her online petition at which demands that Chrysler recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees to correct the design of the vehicle which has the plastic gas tank behind the rear axle. By having the gas tank behind the axle, the car is vulnerable to fuel fires in most rear impact crashes.

This is a claim that has been held against Chrysler before and the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration has held them under examination. The Center for Auto Safety said that the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data reported that this design has led to 172 fatal fires with 254 fatalities. The director of The Center for Auto Safety (CAS), Clarence Ditlow suggests that if Chrysler moved the gas tank forward of the axle then there would be a significant impact. When Chrysler moved the tank from behind the rear axle in 2005 for the Grand Cherokee and 2008 for the Liberty there has not been one single confirmed death from fire.

Chrysler defended their case by showing statistical analysis that purport to show that Jeeps are no more likely to catch fire in a rear impact than other similar vehicles, and that their vehicles meet the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety. In response, research shows that the Jeep Cherokee has 22 times more crashes than its other peer vehicles.

After a long investigation, the NHTSA sent a letter to Chrysler stating that the 1993-2004 and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty were defective and requested that they recall the vehicles.

Chrysler responded, “An Initial Decision will be accompanied by the publication of a Federal Register notice describing the alleged defects, the safety consequences of these defects, the ODI investigation, the scheduling or a public meeting, and the issuance of a press release to inform the public of this matter.” Chrysler also spoke out saying it “disagrees with the NHTSA’s recall request,” and won’t honor it.

Considering how bad of a reputation Toyota and GM got when they dragged their feet with recalls, it is somewhat shocking to see Chrysler respond this way. The response may stem from the fact that recalling these vehicles would unaffordable and the issue does not have a good fix. It will be interesting to see how regulators respond to Chrysler’s bold denial.

Source: Safety Research and Strategies, Inc., “Jeep Fire Advocacy Heats up While Investigation Stalls,” May 22, 2013.

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