Stephen DiGiovanni holds a portrait of his parents, who died in March when their Jeep exploded in a rear-end crash. The SUV had been recalled. Alex Federowicz for The Wall Street Journal
In 2010, U.S. regulators began investigating fires in Jeep sport-utility vehicles. The probe eventually tied at least 51 deaths to fuel tanks that ignited in rear-end crashes. Chrysler Group LLC said the SUVs were safe but agreed a year ago to recall and repair 1.6 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys.
Almost none of them have been fixed.
The Jeep case shows how federal investigations into vehicles with suspected safety problems routinely take longer than they are supposed to. Auto makers and regulators both contribute to the delays. As a result, it can take years to get those cars and trucks off the road.
The Wall Street Journal examined federal data on 279 vehicle recalls since 2000 that were spurred by a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probe. In more than a third of the cases, it took at least 12 months to investigate, recall and start fixing those vehicles, the data show. In about 10% of the cases, it took at least two years.
Many of those investigations involved serious safety concerns. NHTSA, the U.S.’s primary auto-safety regulator, linked more than 4,500 crashes or fires, about 1,600 injuries and 20 deaths to the 279 recalls analyzed by the Journal.
Yet the agency missed its own targets for prompt scrutiny of suspected safety defects in about 70% of the recalls.
In the Jeep case, regulators have missed their internal deadlines three times. Since the first one, at least nine people have died in fiery rear-end crashes of vehicles that Chrysler later recalled or offered to inspect for problems, according to regulatory records and police reports.
The top official at NHTSA, David Friedman, says more than 95 million vehicles have been recalled in the past decade as a result of investigations by the agency. Every recall is unique and has special circumstances that can affect an investigation’s length, he adds.
For example, the recall process can be prolonged if auto makers fight the agency’s claims, as Chrysler did. NHTSA says the Jeep case was “highly complex and unusual.”
Even after auto makers agree to fix vehicles, some repairs are delayed by problems getting needed parts, and regulators rarely impose a strict deadline for finishing the job. Some car owners never find out about the recall because they fall through cracks in the notification process, which requires auto makers to send letters only to the last known registered owner or buyer.
In March, Joseph and Esther DiGiovanni died when their 2004 Jeep Liberty exploded after being rear-ended on Interstate 81 in Maryland. Injuries to the married couple in their late 60s included burns and smoke inhalation, local state-police commander Lt. Michael Fluharty says.
One of their sons, Stephen DiGiovanni, says he and other siblings found a recall notice in their parents’ belongings after they died.
Even though the DiGiovannis were told their Jeep was being recalled, Chrysler had no parts to fix it. It took Chrysler a year to manufacture the parts, send them to dealers and tell Jeep owners how to get their SUVs fixed.
Letters are being sent Monday to owners of the recalled Jeeps, and repairs will start this month. Chrysler says it had to “enlist multiple new supplier partners” to make parts that “far exceeded normal demand.”
Chrysler expects to finish the repairs by March 2015. The company will install a trailer-hitch assembly meant to cushion the impact of “low-speed” crashes. The recall includes model years 1993 to 2007.
On July 2, NHTSA ordered Chrysler to explain why the repairs hadn’t begun. But the agency imposes no firm deadlines on auto makers to complete recall-related repairs. “It’s confusing to me that this is not something that’s been corrected,” says Stephen DiGiovanni.
The Jeeps are “among the safest in their peer groups and met or exceeded the standards in effect at the time they were first sold,” which is why the auto maker opposed the agency’s push for a recall.
Chrysler says it agreed to the recall in 2013 because the matter “raised concerns for its customers.” Chrysler has changed the location of fuel tanks in newer Grand Cherokees and Libertys but says the crashes weren’t a factor in the decision.
Regulators and auto makers are under heightened scrutiny because General Motors Co.GM -1.12% knew for nearly 11 years about faulty ignition switches that could cut power to steering, air bags and brakes before it recalled 2.6 million cars earlier this year.
In June, GM recalled more than eight million additional vehicles for similar problems. The company has attributed at least 13 deaths to the defective switches but says the tally could climb.
A GM spokesman says the company is “doing things differently today” and “determined to set a new industry standard for safety and quality.”
Auto makers have recalled a total of 43.6 million vehicles in the U.S. since the start of this year, more than any full-year total in history.
Recalls usually begin one of two ways. Auto makers often spot a safety defect themselves, tell regulators and then launch the recall. Other recalls are the result of action by NHTSA.
NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation launches investigations based on complaints or formal requests. Federal law requires regulators to respond to formal requests within 120 days.
If a complaint seems to deserve attention, the office launches a “preliminary evaluation.” Some of those investigations are elevated later to a more serious “engineering analysis.”
The Office of Defects Investigation aims to finish each preliminary evaluation within four months and an engineering analysis within one year, but it often fails. NHTSA missed at least one of those targets in 72% of the recalls examined by the Journal.
A NHTSA spokeswoman says the agency’s top priority is getting auto makers to recall vehicles with suspected safety problems, rather than “artificially closing an investigation to meet informal guidelines.”
Auto makers are required to tell car owners about a recall within 60 days, but there is no deadline for when the repair parts must be ready.
The median gap between the start of an investigation and when auto makers tell owners to get their cars fixed is about 10 months, the Journal’s analysis shows. It took about a year at GM, Ford Motor Co.F -1.23% and Toyota Motor Corp.7203.TO -0.76% , the three biggest car and truck sellers in the U.S. so far this year.
At Chrysler, which ranks No. 4 in U.S. sales, the gap was nine months. The figure doesn’t include the Jeep fuel-tank case because the recall hasn’t been completed.
A GM spokesman says the auto maker has made internal changes that should speed and improve its procedures for addressing safety defects. Ford, Toyota and Chrysler declined to comment.
The Journal’s findings are based on recalls by the 10 largest auto makers in U.S. sales. Those companies sell 90% of all passenger cars and trucks in the U.S.
NHTSA says the analysis doesn’t tell the full story because the Journal didn’t examine most of the recalls prompted by the agency. Those include recalls by smaller auto makers, manufacturers of heavy trucks or recreational vehicles, and auto-parts makers.
The 279 recalls reviewed by the Journal include 85% of all vehicles recalled since 2000 that were tied to a regulatory investigation.
More than 75% of all recalls are initiated by an auto maker without any probe by NHTSA. Because companies typically disclose few details about their internal investigations, those recalls weren’t included in the analysis.
Asked why the process takes longer in some cases than others, Mr. Friedman cites “particularly challenging cases” and resistance from auto makers that “slows down” the agency.
Auto makers can fight NHTSA in court if the agency orders a recall, forcing investigators to work harder to meet the higher burden of proof in a court case, he adds. Given the time, expense and risk of losing, regulators have long preferred using the investigation process to pressure companies into announcing recalls on their own.
George Hoffer, a transportation economist at the University of Richmond who has been an auto-industry consultant, says many investigations drag on because regulators wrongly push auto makers to do expensive repairs that have little or no effect on safety. That forces companies to fight back, he says.
“The process is broken,” says Sean Kane, the founder of research firm Safety Research & Strategies Inc., who has advised lawyers in lawsuits against auto makers, including GM and Chrysler. “The result is a lot of wasted time and investigations that can drag on for years or…never get going.”
Mr. Friedman, NHTSA’s acting administrator, says regulators “have been aggressive in influencing manufacturers to recall vehicles based on their legal duty to do so and have issued record fines when they don’t.”
NHTSA generally can’t stop manufacturers from selling products while a recall order is being challenged. Mr. Friedman says the agency is seeking authority from lawmakers to levy bigger fines, halt sales and require the immediate recall of vehicles it considers an “imminent hazard.” Proposed legislation hasn’t gained traction in Congress.
In the Jeep case, NHTSA took action after the agency was asked in October 2009 to review the fuel tanks. The request came from Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group started in 1970 by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union.
Mr. Ditlow says he was concerned that the tanks might be dangerous because of their position behind the rear axle.
The agency had a 120-day deadline to respond to Mr. Ditlow’s formal request. Regulators announced their initial investigation of the Jeep fuel tanks in August 2010—about 200 days after the agency’s deadline.
NHTSA then took 22 months to complete its preliminary evaluation of the Jeeps, about 18 months longer than its target for that part of the process, the agency’s documents show. An engineering analysis that is supposed to take about 12 months began in June 2012 and is still under way.
A NHTSA spokeswoman says the agency missed the 120-day deadline because it was being thorough. “Some petitions require more time for us to conduct our analysis without prematurely denying a petition,” the spokeswoman says.
The overall probe took longer because of “incredibly rare pushback” from Chrysler, she says.
A Chrysler spokesman says the auto maker was “in close coordination with NHTSA” throughout the investigation and recall. “The agency has had full knowledge of our activities. Chrysler Group complied with all applicable regulations governing recalls.”
So far, at least 834 documents totaling nearly 30,000 pages have been publicly disclosed as part of the investigation. The documents show the agency repeatedly questioned the Jeeps’ safety. Chrysler repeatedly said they weren’t defective.
While the two sides sparred, Manuel Bringas-Mejia, 24, died in an explosion of a 1997 Grand Cherokee on Interstate 4 in Florida. Mr. Bringas-Mejia was a passenger in the SUV when it was rear-ended in November 2011. The Jeep’s driver suffered extreme burns and was in a coma for about two months.
In a lawsuit, Mr. Bringas-Mejia’s relatives, including the SUV’s driver, blamed the fatal explosion on an allegedly defective fuel tank in the Grand Cherokee. Chrysler settled the suit in December, according to the family’s lawyer and a Chrysler spokesman.
Terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed. The auto maker’s spokesman says the accident was a “tragedy.”
During the investigation, federal officials said the SUVs met the relevant safety standardswhen they were made. NHTSA insisted it could still push for a recall if it found a “safety related defect…supported by the evidence.” NHTSA also noted that auto makers increasingly moved fuel tanks elsewhere after rear-end crashes of Ford Pintos in the 1970s.
In June 2013, NHTSA asked for a recall but didn’t say how it wanted Chrysler to fix the Jeeps. Chrysler responded that most of the 51 deaths linked by NHTSA to the Jeep fuel tanks occurred in crashes at a higher speed and intensity than the tanks were required to withstand.
Company officials also believed it wouldn’t be realistic to make major changes to the fuel tanks, such as moving them. “It’s not just a matter of moving things,” says a person close to Chrysler. “It’s like putting your heart where your kidneys are.”
Two weeks after NHTSA’s request, Chrysler agreed to recall 1.6 million Jeeps—and offer inspections on certain other vehicles. Chrysler says the trailer-hitch assembly it will start installing this month is a “structural reinforcement to better manage crash-energy in low-speed rear impacts.”
Since the recall was announced, at least four people have died in rear-end Jeep crashes, including the DiGiovannis.
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