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Jeep Grand Cherokee fire investigation shows how accident statistics are open to interpretation

Consumer Reports News: February 24, 2012 03:38 PM

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Fires in older Jeep Grand Cherokees have resulted in hundreds of deaths since the SUVs rolled out in 1993, and dramatic incidents involving fire continue to occur. Since reporting last month, we have dug into the statistics, and gained more insights into the real risks.

Until 2004, Grand Cherokees were designed with gasoline tanks mounted under the rear of the vehicle, behind the rear axle. The Center for Auto Safety (CAS), one of the oldest auto safety organizations in the country, considers this design similar to that of the Ford Pinto. The Pinto was famously recalled in 1978, an action prompted after 27 people died in rear collisions when fires erupted from the cars' gas tanks.

Chrysler took issue with our previous report (“Fire deaths in Jeep Grand Cherokees continue to mount, safety group reaches out to Chrysler”). In that blog, we cited a letter submitted to Chrysler by CAS that stated: “The known Jeep Grand Cherokee toll now stands at 198 fatal fire crashes with 284 deaths.” Both sides agree that of those fatalities caused specifically by a rear-end collision constitute a fraction of that number.

“The fundamental flaw in the CAS statement is they’re using counts of incidents, and not considering how many of these cars are on the road and how long they’ve been on the road,” says Doug Betts, Chrysler’s senior vice president for quality. “The implication … is that somebody has found a safety defect in our car and we don’t want to recall it because we don’t want to spend the money.”

“We take situations like this very seriously," says Betts. "We don’t do recalls as a company because somebody comes and puts our arm behind our back and twists, and we think we’ve got no choice. We do what we think is our responsibility to protect the safety of people who drive our cars.” He adds that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is the safest SUV of any of eight of its competitors from the same era.

Meanwhile, CAS stands by their numbers. So, who’s right?

The reality is, the numbers are complicated. You know the saying about lies, damn lies, and statistics….

Both organizations get their underlying figures from a federal database known as FARS, an acronym for the Fatality Analysis and Reporting System. When an accident occurs, police report data is sent to FARS (administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, aka NHTSA). The information includes vehicle make and model, location, roads, speed, time of day, weather conditions, points of impact in the collision, and something called the “most harmful event”—the action that led to the death or deaths. (FARS does not collect data on non-fatal accidents.)

We reported CAS’s finding that there were 13 new fatal accidents in these Grand Cherokees in 2010, resulting in 14 deaths. We went back to CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow to clarify the numbers for this piece. The former Consumers Union board member says that the 13 fatal Grand Cherokee accidents in 2010 that he referenced were those where fire was coded as the “most harmful event” and resulting in the deaths, regardless of the initial point of impact.

“I think we really don’t disagree on the numbers,” says Betts. But he says CAS’s data “are not turned into a rate,” noting that the Grand Cherokee was “very, very popular at that time.” In fact, Chrysler sold 2.86 million Jeep Grand Cherokees from 1992-2004, according to Automotive News. Betts wouldn’t share Chrysler’s data, but he says fires resulting from rear crashes are extremely rare events.

However, CAS did share with us some slides from a presentation Chrysler made to the NHTSA. One chart, labeled as being from Chrysler (see page 17 of pdf), shows 12 fires resulting from rear impacts to Grand Cherokees in data from 1992 through 2009. Divided by the number of Grand Cherokees sold and the number of years they’ve been on the road, that gives the Grand Cherokee a rate of 0.43 fire deaths in rear end collisions per million years of use. This compares with less than 0.2 for seven other contemporary SUVs (including the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, and Toyota 4Runner), the slide shows. These competitors suffered between zero and five fires each between 1992 and 2009. Only the Honda Passport, of which relatively few were sold, had a higher rate. And that rate is based on just one fatal accident.

Given the margin of error, Betts says all these fatality rates are similar.

It is worth noting that following its bankruptcy in 2009, newly formed Chrysler Group LLC assumed liability for recalls of vehicles built by earlier iterations of the automaker, as well as liability in court cases for accidents in older Chrysler vehicles involved in accidents after the bankruptcy, according to Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese.

NHTSA opened an investigation into the Grand Cherokee fires in response to a petition by CAS. The investigation specifically focuses on fires that result from a rear collision. Ditlow says he counts other fires in his reporting because he’s trying to prod NHTSA to expand the scope of the investigation. He says there are tragic incidents recorded in the FARS database that result from the fuel filler neck coming apart from the fuel tank in rollovers and other fires. He also notes that some of these accidents involve rear impacts as vehicles spin and ricochet in a crash, even if the rear is not the initial point of impact.

Ditlow concedes Chrysler’s position that overall the Grand Cherokee has a safety record on par with other SUVs such as the Ford Explorer. He points out, however, that the Explorer was the subject of the largest recall in history in 2000 after a spate of rollover crashes. He further notes that the Grand Cherokee’s rate of fatal fires is more than double that of any other contemporary competitive SUV save the Passport. The 27 total fire deaths that caused the Pinto to be recalled also came from a population of more than 2.83 million sold, therefore the Pinto fire-death rate is a little more than twice that of the Grand Cherokee’s in rear-end collisions.

In the end, FARS is a blunt instrument for measuring the range of factors that contribute to accidents. Both CAS and Chrysler go to great lengths to verify their counts of fatalities. Neither relies solely on FARS, because the database, while extensive, is fairly rudimentary. Since it is based on police reports, which differ from state to state, the level of detail available also varies by state. For instance, secondary and tertiary impacts aren’t always reflected. In some cases, Ditlow points out, fire deaths occurred in vehicles that struck Grand Cherokees, not in the Jeeps themselves.

Depending on how you slice the data, you can show that these older Grand Cherokees—now nine to 20 years old—are as safe as other competitive vehicles (indeed, they meet all federal safety standards), or that they have a higher incidence of fiery death than other SUVs. Even when you’re using the same numbers. And organizations with a vested point of view can slice FARS statistics to support their own perspective.

The bottom line
The best advice for consumers is to look for a vehicle with an exceptional safety record, not one that just meets minimal standards. Our ratings cover how vehicles perform in safety tests by both NHTSA’s NCAP crash-test program (which is more stringent than the minimum standard certification tests) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as well as how vehicles perform in our own active safety tests.

It’s also worth noting that technology is advancing along with safety standards, so generally you find current generation cars provide better occupant protection and more comprehensive safety systems than older models do. In other words, when buying used, do your homework and consider buying as recent a car as your budget will allow.

Related:
Fire deaths in Jeep Grand Cherokees continue to mount, safety group reaches out to Chrysler
NHTSA Jeep Grand Cherokee fire investigation grows--by one
NHTSA to investigate 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees for fire risk

Eric Evarts

   

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