US: ex-NHTSA chief defends Jeep decision image

David Strickland, the former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief defended his decision to end the government’s lengthy investigation into 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs for gas tank fires.

He said the agency was satisfied with Chrysler’s fix after a very extensive investigation and rejected claims from some safety advocates that his new job at Washington-based law firm Venable LLP — which represents Chrysler — was a factor in the agency’s decision to close the investigation that began in August 2010.

“We took every step to make sure that it addressed the real-world risk and it addressed the numbers,” said Strickland, who was the top US auto safety regulator from early 2010 until last week.

He said that he was “intensely confident” in the decision to end the investigation, and noted that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also signed off on the decision.

Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in a statement Friday, “It is tragic that NHTSA approved Chrysler’s sham trailer hitch recall for Jeeps that explode in rear impacts. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland will be remembered as the administrator who took a job with one of Chrysler’s law firms rather than save more children like Cassidy Jarmon from burning to deaths in Jeeps with trailer hitches.”

Jarmon, 4, died in a February 2006 fire when her mother’s 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind.

Strickland said NHTSA conducted some crash tests of Chrysler’s remedy of installing a trailer hitch to protect the gas tanks of 1992-98 Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Libertys in rear collisions, as safety advocates had urged. He also said NHTSA “never intended” for Chrysler’s remedy to address high-speed crashes. Strickland said NHTSA had been focused on low- to moderate-speed crashes. “Somebody gets rear-ended at 70, 80 miles per hour — there’s very few vehicles that are going to do well there.”