U.S. Investigates Possible Defect in Grand Cherokee

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal authorities are investigating a possible defect in Jeep Grand Cherokees that may cause the popular sport-utility vehicles to lurch into reverse--usually when idling with the gearshift in the "park" position--a government safety official confirmed Tuesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received at least 48 complaints of what it terms "inadvertent rollaway in reverse" involving 1995 to 1999 Grand Cherokees, according to an agency document. The incidents have led to 32 crashes and 14 injuries. No deaths have been reported.

In one instance, documents show, a hapless motorist was pinned against a pickup truck by his Cherokee, and in another occurrence a woman was knocked down and dragged along her driveway into the street. One of her legs was crushed.

In other cases reported to the government, empty Cherokees have taken off on their own, looping around parking lots, crossing busy roads and crashing into trees and buildings.

"Obviously, we've seen a trend that's of enough concern that we've decided to open an investigation," said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson, confirming the preliminary probe, which could lead to a recall or to a finding that there is no problem.

Although the number of Grand Cherokee incidents is small, NHTSA has launched safety investigations in the past with as few as two complaints. The agency, which has some 40 open investigations, was severely criticized last year for not immediately reacting to a few dozen reports of Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorers. The full scope of problems sometimes becomes evident only after officials investigate a small number of initial complaints.

"We don't want to prejudge it, but it warrants a closer look," said Tyson, referring to the Jeep complaints. About 1.3 million of the popular SUVs are affected by the investigation.

The agency issued no recommendations for Grand Cherokee owners while it conducts the investigation, but one practical option would be to always set the parking brake and to make sure the engine is turned off.

Dominick Infante, safety spokesman for DaimlerChrysler Corp., which builds the Grand Cherokee, said Tuesday that the company is cooperating with NHTSA. "We don't believe there is an issue with the vehicle, but we will investigate," Infante said.

Infante said he had no information on any consumer complaints received directly by DaimlerChrysler. Typically, manufacturers get far more problem reports than does NHTSA, since many consumers are not familiar with the federal auto safety agency and the process for registering complaints. As part of the investigation, the company will now have to open its files to NHTSA.

The spokesman added that the Grand Cherokee has been redesigned, and models built since 1999 have a new type of transmission.

Among those who complained to NHTSA was Jacquee Kahn of Los Angeles, who said her 1997 Cherokee rolled into reverse while she was fueling it at a gas station near one of the city's busiest intersections--Santa Monica and Westwood boulevards--just before Christmas 1999.

The engine was off and Kahn's sister was sitting in the front passenger seat. Kahn, 31, who works in the movie industry, said she feared the Jeep would roll straight into traffic because her sister was having trouble reaching the parking brake. But the driver's door was open and it crunched into a gas pump, bringing the vehicle to a halt. Kahn said she hasn't driven the Jeep since, and it sits in her garage.

"I was absolutely terrified to drive that car," said Kahn, who has also sued DaimlerChrysler. "What happens if I get back in that car and kill somebody?"

Nineteen of the 48 cases cited by NHTSA involved Grand Cherokees that rolled into reverse with the motor off--as did Kahn's. In the other 29 cases, "the engine was left idling and the vehicle self-engaged in reverse and moved under power," according to an agency report.

Kahn said she felt that DaimlerChrysler did not take her complaint seriously, perhaps because she is a woman. She said she felt insulted by a suggestion from a company representative that she reread her owner's manual.

"When it comes to cars, guys think that women don't have a clue," Kahn said.

DaimlerChrysler spokesman Infante said he had no information on Kahn's case. The company did examine her Jeep, and wrote her that it had found no problem.

Kahn's persistence, however, helped bring the issue to the attention of NHTSA. "It illustrates how important it is for people to make us aware when they encounter a problem of this sort," Tyson said.

Other incidents reported to NHTSA described a similar pattern:

* A Santa Clara man wrote that his Grand Cherokee lurched into reverse and pinned him against a Ford F-250 pickup truck that he had been towing. He suffered bruised ribs in the 1997 incident.

"Looks like the Jeep popped into reverse by itself," the consumer wrote.

A week later, he said he noticed that if the gear shift was not completely pushed to its limits in park, the lever could pop into reverse. "Suspect engine vibration caused the lever to move into reverse and Jeep then started to roll backward," he wrote. "I think this is dangerous and should be checked out."

* Another Jeep owner wrote to report a 1998 accident in which he was knocked down in a parking lot by his vehicle. He said the Grand Cherokee had unexpectedly gone into reverse once before, but he dismissed that incident, thinking that he had forgotten to put the transmission in park. "Now, with a second failure, owner believes there is a mechanical problem," said a NHTSA document.

The Jeep ran over the man's left foot, but he managed to get inside the vehicle and stop it.

* An Oklahoma man wrote about a 1999 mishap that occurred after his wife left their Grand Cherokee idling while she went to open a gate at a ranch. No one was in the vehicle.

The 1998 Jeep jumped into reverse, crossed a busy highway, went down a 40-foot slope and hit a tree, having traveled an estimated 400 feet "at a pretty good rate of speed."

When his wife and a relative got to the vehicle, they found the gear shift lever in drive. The consumer said he was unhappy with DaimlerChrysler's response.

"The company has denied there being anything wrong with the vehicle, but does not explain why it went into reverse," he wrote. "If they say my wife is at fault, explain how."

He concluded: "This vehicle has a serious defect and is dangerous. Even when the body damage is repaired, my wife will be afraid to drive it."

According to an NHTSA document, the transmission on the 1995-99 Grand Cherokees being investigated may be the same as that used on Dodge Dakota trucks recalled last year. DaimlerChrysler recalled 123,000 trucks built from 1991 to 1992 because of reports that they could roll into reverse when the driver believed the transmission to be in park. The company replaced a valve in the recalled transmissions.

DaimlerChrysler spokesman Infante said the company undertook the truck recall as a goodwill gesture and does not believe there was a problem with the vehicles. "We do believe these incidents resulted from mistakes made when drivers shifted into park," Infante said. He could not confirm whether the same transmission is used in the Grand Cherokee.

One of the biggest safety cases ever handled by NHTSA involved about 20 million Ford vehicles, built mostly during the 1970s. More than 130 deaths were blamed on vehicles that suddenly shifted into reverse, triggering hundreds of lawsuits against the company.

However, in 1981, then-Secretary of Transportation Neal Goldschmidt decided against a recall. Instead, Ford agreed to mail a warning sticker to owners of the affected vehicles.

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