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The Nation

Jeep Cherokee Blame Game Heats Up

Safety: Complaints from drivers about a parking gear defect continue to be met by auto maker's denials. An inquiry may finally settle the issue.

December 23, 2001|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Rebecca Gervasi represents a dilemma for DaimlerChrysler Corp. and its popular Jeep Grand Cherokee sport-utility vehicle.

The Porterville, Calif., woman said she fell in love with her 1998 Grand Cherokee after she and her husband bought it. But in early November, Gervasi was injured trying to scramble back into her Jeep after she placed it in park and got out, only to watch it power away in reverse.

And now she is angry. "I think they had a responsibility to notify me that this was a possibility, whether or not they chose to [have a] recall," Gervasi said.

DaimlerChrysler maintains that drivers are to blame for hundreds of such mishaps, but newly disclosed testimony from a Jeep engineer has raised questions about the auto maker's assertions. Meanwhile, a federal safety agency will soon begin testing vehicles and taking transmissions apart, intensifying an investigation that could lead to a recall of 1.8 million Grand Cherokees.

More than 860 people have complained to the government or to DaimlerChrysler about "inadvertent rollaway in reverse" incidents involving Grand Cherokees, which have been blamed for at least 359 crashes, 184 injuries and five deaths, according to government figures.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a formal inquiry in July after investigators determined that several dozen consumer complaints pointed to a possible pattern. Typically in such cases, the process of officially determining whether there is a defect that should be addressed can take a year or longer.

The company has told NHTSA that it can find no mechanical defect and that virtually all the incidents were probably caused by drivers who inadvertently left their vehicles in reverse and got out.

"We haven't found anything wrong, and yet we continue to look," said Mike Rosenau, a company spokesman.

But John C. Koepele, a DaimlerChrysler engineer, has testified for the company in lawsuits that it is possible to position the gear shifter on the Grand Cherokee so that the indicator is partially in park, though not fully secured.

Plaintiffs suing the company have alleged that a poorly designed internal component can allow the Grand Cherokee's transmission to come to rest in an unstable position between park and reverse. A door slamming, or an air-conditioner cycling can then cause the vehicle to slip into reverse, according to engineers for the plaintiffs.

Koepele's statements raise a significant question: Could the Grand Cherokee be giving its drivers misleading feedback?

"We've got DaimlerChrysler claiming there is no evidence of a defect, but then we've got this company engineer testifying that it is possible to put that shift lever where it appears to be in park when, in fact, it is not," said Sean Kane, a Massachusetts-based auto safety consultant who reviewed the testimony and DaimlerChrysler's official response to federal regulators.

"The bad design can mislead the driver into thinking the vehicle is securely in park when it is not," said Joan Claybrook, head of the Public Citizen advocacy group, who also reviewed the documents. Claybrook is a former administrator of the federal auto safety agency.

Federal investigators have been reluctant to blame drivers alone. The rate of park-to-reverse complaints for Grand Cherokees is more than five times greater than for any similar SUV made by a different company. If only drivers were to blame, that would suggest that Grand Cherokee drivers were somehow more error-prone than, say, Ford Explorer drivers.

Koepele was questioned in June 2000 by a lawyer for an Alabama woman who obtained a financial settlement from the auto maker. He gave similar responses earlier that year in a New York case, transcripts show.

Koepele's answers were couched in technical language and carefully qualified. He testified that it is possible to position the transmission between reverse and park but insisted that the condition is not a safety hazard, claiming it can only be replicated by experts such as himself.

"I can know what I'm looking for and what I want to do--I can achieve that," he said.

Koepele said he had to put both hands on the gear shifter and start from the park position to find the spot. "That's not something that a normal shift with one hand will achieve," he said.

But others say they can do it with one hand, and they don't have to start from park.

"If he can do it on purpose, then somebody else can do it by accident," said Simon Tamny, an Ohio engineer who has testified for plaintiffs.

A NHTSA investigator was able to reproduce the problem three times on a Grand Cherokee that a consumer had complained about. He shifted through reverse until the gear indicator partially showed "park." The vehicle remained motionless for 10 to 25 seconds before going into reverse. His detailed description of the test made no mention of two-handed shifting, documents show.

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