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Safety agency questions speed of Chrysler recall

DETROIT – The U.S. government’s road safety agency is accusing Chrysler of moving too slowly to fix some Jeep SUVs in a recall announced more than a year ago.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a letter released Wednesday, is asking the automaker why it’s taking so long to fix as many as 2.5 million older Grand Cherokees and Libertys with gas tanks mounted behind rear axles. The tanks could rupture in rear collisions, leak fuel and cause fires.

The letter is the latest in a long fight between the automaker and agency over the safety of the SUVs, all built before the 2008 model year. Initially, NHTSA wanted the company to recall 2.7 million of them, but Chrysler refused, saying they were as safe as similar vehicles. They eventually reached a deal to recall 1.56 million, with 1.2 million others placed in a campaign to be inspected for hitches. Last year, NHTSA said a three-year investigation showed 51 people had died in fiery crashes in Jeeps with gas tanks behind the rear axle.

In the letter, NHTSA said Chrysler will send notices to owners of 1.5 million Grand Cherokees from 1993 to 1998 model years, and to 1 million owners of 2002-2007 Libertys.

But the letter says trailer hitch production didn’t start until May, and the pace is so slow it will take Chrysler 4.7 years to get enough hitches if all owners respond to the recall.

“For many owners, a recall remedy deferred by parts availability easily becomes a defect remedy denied,” NHTSA wrote. Chrysler expects to begin repairs Aug. 1, according to the letter. The company has until July 16 to respond to the agency’s request for information or face up to a $35 million fine, the agency said.

At least part of the delays may be attributed to NHTSA testing the trailer hitch remedy. The company says NHTSA has had full knowledge of its work on the recall. Chrysler maintains the SUVs are not defective and says it agreed to the hitches because the matter “has raised public concern.”

But Clarence Ditlow, head of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research, said in a letter to NHTSA the agency should immediately force Chrysler to speed up the recalls. While NHTSA and Chrysler argue, four more people have been killed and two more seriously burned in Jeep fiery crashes, according to Ditlow.