A fatal accident this week involving a Jeep Liberty has revived criticism from safety advocates that a federally sanctioned recall plan to keep the vehicle's fuel tank from igniting in rear-end crashes didn't go far enough to protect motorists.
Vicki Hill, 58, of Elyria, Ohio, died early Monday morning after her 2007 Jeep Liberty was rear-ended.
Hill's Jeep Liberty was among more than 1 million sport utility vehicles that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV agreed to outfit with trailer hitches in 2013. The recall was announced after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that the fuel tanks, mounted between the rear suspension and the bumper of the vehicles, were vulnerable to leaks and fires in rear-end crashes.
Online records maintained by Fiat Chrysler show that Hill's vehicle had the trailer hitch recall performed.
"Here is what appears to be a tragic incident that highlights the exact problems we were concerned about 18 months ago," said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group that has urged NHTSA to reopen its investigation into the Jeep fires since at least February, 2016. "Our fear then and our fear today remains to be that the fix is not sufficient."
NHTSA, which agreed to that remedy in 2013 after a series of deadly fires involving the vehicles, said in statement that it "will review available information and take action as appropriate."
The agency has linked more than 50 deaths to the issue in Jeeps. A 2013 letter from the automaker to NHTSA cited 21 fatal Jeep Grand Cherokee crashes and five fatal Jeep Liberty collisions.
Fiat Chrysler agreed to voluntarily install trailer hitches on 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs to protect their fuel tanks. FCA maintains the vehicles do not contain a defect and comply with federal safety requirements.
The company "extends its deepest sympathies to those affected by this tragedy," spokesman Eric Mayne said in an email. "The 2007 Jeep Liberty meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards," including those that test fuel-system integrity in rear impacts.
Takori Brown, Hill's daughter, said her mother was on her way to work at Comprehensive Logistics in nearby Lorain, Ohio, where she worked as a material technician. She was at a stop light when she was rammed from behind by another driver, Brown said.
"We're just shocked," Brown said. "She was so kind, She was so funny. She was a private person but when it came to her family she was the life of the party."
Hill's Jeep was hit from behind by a Buick while stopped at a traffic signal in Elyria, Captain Phil Hammonds of the city's police department said. Fuel from the Jeep then caught fire, he said in an email.
The driver of the Buick was cited for suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol but those charges have since been dropped, he said.
Hammonds also said investigators suspect excessive speed to be involved but declined to estimate how fast the other driver was going at the time of the crash citing the early stages of the investigation.
After FCA agreed to recall the Jeeps, NHTSA closed its investigation in November of 2014. It concluded in a memo at the time that the trailer hitch provided "incremental safety benefits in certain low and moderate speed crash incidents," while also noting that the repair "will not necessarily be effective in the most severe crashes."