DETROIT — Nearly 10 months after agreeing to recall 1.56 million Jeeps, Chrysler is still gearing up to fix the SUVs.
Safety advocates critical of Chrysler Group LLC’s slow reaction say the company is taking too long in another case showing the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration’s inability and unwillingness to effectively regulate the auto industry.
“It took a very long time for Chrysler to agree to do this, and the agency had to be forced to act,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate and former head of the NHTSA.
There are some similarities between the Jeep recall and the one that has thrust General Motors Co. into the spotlight since February. Chrysler is dealing with 1.56 million older-model SUVs — Grand Cherokees and Toledo-built Libertys — while GM is recalling about 2.6 million older small cars.
Both alleged defects — a rear-mounted gas tank at risk for fiery rear-end collisions in the Jeep SUVs and GM ignition switches that can shut off while driven — have been linked to fatal accidents.
There are, however, key differences. While Chrysler has agreed to conduct a safety campaign to install trailer hitches to provide additional protection in low-speed crashes, the automaker still contends its SUVs are not defective. The automaker has not said when the trailer hitches will be ready.
GM, in contrast, has apologized repeatedly for the ignition-switch defects and has said dealers can start replacing them by mid-April.
Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said multiple suppliers are making the trailer hitches necessary to complete the recall.
“Launching a safety recall demands complex engineering and close collaboration with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration well before we accumulate replacement parts,” Chrysler said in a statement. “Chrysler Group takes seriously its commitment to customer safety.”
Meanwhile, the NHTSA plans to issue its final report on the Jeep investigation “in the coming weeks.”
“Regardless of whether a trailer hitch is a miracle solution or not, there is no reasonable explanation” for the time it is taking Chrysler to complete the recall, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety. “They announced the recall last June and it is now in April?”
The NHTSA’s initial investigation into the Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Libertys was prompted by Mr. Ditlow’s request in 2009.
Nearly four years later, Chrysler agreed to conduct a “safety campaign,” for Grand Cherokees from 1993-98 and Libertys from 2002-07 after initially defying the agency’s request for a recall.
Chrysler argued that the SUVs “do not contain a defect,” in a letter sent to the NHTSA last year when it agreed to conduct the recall.
“Most of the crashes identified by NHTSA … were extremely severe crashes involving energy levels far in excess of any reasonable expectation for fuel tank performance,” Chrysler said.
The NHTSA, however, concluded that the recalled SUVs are defective because fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle performed poorly in rear-end collisions, and were involved in 37 fiery crashes and 51 fatalities.
Safety advocates immediately criticized Chrysler’s trailer-hitch proposal and challenged the NHTSA’s willingness to accept that remedy.
“The recall was a joke to begin with,” said Jenelle Embrey of Fairfax, Va., who witnessed a fatal accident involving a Jeep Grand Cherokee several years ago. “These hitches are designed to tow trailers, not provide protection from accidents.”
In January, the NHTSA gave Chrysler the green light to move ahead with the trailer-hitch fix.
“Throughout this process, the agency has been in close communication with Chrysler and has no reservations with their announced actions,” the agency said.
Chrysler sent letters to affected Jeep owners late last year, but has not yet notified them about when dealers can install the trailer hitches.