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U.S. Probes Jeeps Slipping Into Reverse

Complaints of renegade Grand Cherokees surge

FRIDAY, Aug. 3, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Federal officials say they've received 145 complaints that Jeep Grand Cherokees are prone to sudden backward surges, a problem that may be linked to as many as 100 accidents, 40 injuries and three deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which last month opened an investigation in the sport utility vehicle, says the number of consumer reports of "inadvertent rollaway in reverse" has tripled since then.

The agency says it knows of one fatality associated with the complaints, which involve 1995 to 1999 model Grand Cherokees. But the Los Angeles Times reports today that at least two other people have died as a result of the problem, in which the gearshift of the idling SUV slips suddenly from park to reverse.

In one incident reported by the paper, a 66-year-old Michigan man died after being run over by an unoccupied 1998 Grand Cherokee in the parking lot of a Detroit airport. DaimlerChrysler Corp., which makes the vehicles, says that episode was the result of an assembly error and not a design flaw.

In another case, the newspaper say a 36-year-old New Jersey woman was crushed to death by her SUV when it pinned her between the driver's side door and the frame of the garage.

So far the safety agency has taken no steps to recall the vehicles. DaimlerChrysler has settled at least four lawsuits involving the gear problem, according to the Times.

Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesman, denies a Times assertion that the agency is broadening its investigation into the Grand Cherokee. He says the sharp increase in the number of owner complaints is a "normal pattern."

"We opened the investigation on the second of July and it had a fair amount of publicity. That always triggers an increase in complaints -- that's human nature," Tyson says. NHTSA has asked DaimlerChrysler for its own information about the potential problem, a request the automaker must meet by Sept. 11th, Tyson says.

Mike Aberlich, a Chrysler Group spokesman, says the company has been cooperating with NHTSA since the inquiry into its SUVs opened last month. "It's expected at this stage that you would get more complaints because that's what you're looking for. It's way too early to say that there's a trend or any expansion of scope," Aberlich says.

Last year, DaimlerChrysler recalled more than 120,000 Dodge Dakotas after those trucks were linked to a similar gear problem. "Inadvertent placement of the shift lever in 'reverse' can occur when the driver believes that the transmission has been placed in 'park,'" according to a summary of the problem on NHTSA's Web site. "This can cause the vehicle to roll away with the engine on after the driver has left the vehicle."

However, Aberlich says the latest investigation and the Dakota recall are not related. The two vehicles use different transmissions, he says, and the fix to the pickup trucks was already present in the Grand Cherokee.

Aberlich says the rate of complaints about sudden reversals in the Grand Cherokee has so far been "ten times" less than that for the Dakota, and the lawsuit and settlement rates for the vehicle don't appear to be any higher than for the company's other cars. As many as 1.3 million vehicles may be affected by the potential problem, he says.

What To Do

To be on the safe side, turn your vehicle off. The New Jersey woman was loading the idling vehicle when the accident happened.

For more on auto safety, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Center for Auto Safety.

SOURCES: Interviews with Rae Tyson, spokesman, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C., and Mike Aberlich, spokesman, Chrysler Group, Auburn Hills, Mich.; Aug. 3, 2001 Los Angeles Times
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