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Safety Probe of Jeep Grand Cherokees Widens

November 09, 2001|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators said Thursday that they have broadened their safety probe of Jeep Grand Cherokees after receiving hundreds of new complaints that the popular sport utility vehicles can suddenly lurch from "park" to reverse.

Unsuspecting consumers have been trapped--and, in some cases, crushed--when the 4,000-pound SUVs backed up on them without warning, investigators say. A federal official has been able to duplicate the alleged transmission problem, according to documents.

DaimlerChrysler, which makes the $30,000 vehicles, said its own investigators have found nothing wrong. The company has previously said it suspects mistakes by drivers are causing the problems.

However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has now received 865 complaints of "inadvertent rollaway in reverse" by Grand Cherokees, a sixfold increase from 144 in August. According to NHTSA, 359 crashes, 184 injuries and five deaths--including that of an Orange County woman--have been blamed on the problem.

Eun Young Oh, 35, of Mission Viejo was crushed to death between a tree and the open driver's door of her 1997 Grand Cherokee last December, records show. The accident was witnessed by her 3-year-old daughter, strapped in a child seat in the back seat.

"My suspicion is that this is a 'park-to-reverse' case," said Bruce Brusavich, an attorney representing the Oh family, which is considering a lawsuit.

By intensifying its investigation, NHTSA officially moved closer to recalling an estimated 1.8 million vehicles. The agency said that the complaint rate for "rollaway in reverse" problems is five times greater for the Grand Cherokee than for any similar SUV made by a competitor.

Previously, the probe had focused only on vehicles made from 1995 to 1999, but now it covers all Grand Cherokee manufactured from 1993 to the present. The earlier phase of the investigation centered on analyzing consumer complaints and documentation submitted by the company. Now that federal investigators have upgraded their scrutiny, they will be taking transmissions apart and conducting their own tests.

DaimlerChrysler spokesman Mike Rosenau said the company has not been able to find any transmission defect in the Grand Cherokee, despite an extensive internal investigation.

"We haven't stopped looking for something that might be wrong," Rosenau said. "We haven't found anything wrong yet and we continue to look."

DaimlerChrysler has received 348 complaints directly from consumers, which are included the government's total. The company has entered into confidential settlements in at least four lawsuits arising from accidents, according to records and interviews.

Engineering consultants for plaintiffs say a poorly designed internal component of the transmissions is to blame. They say it can create the illusion that a Grand Cherokee is in park when the transmission is actually between gears and can slip into reverse.

Government investigators have not commented, but documents show that they are looking at internal components of the transmission as well as the system that links it to the gearshift.

NHTSA said that one of its investigators was able to duplicate the problem. An agency document described the test. The Grand Cherokee was on flat ground, with the engine running. The investigator shifted from "reverse" to "park." Although the gearshift may not have been fully in park, the Grand Cherokee remained motionless. After 10 to 25 seconds, it slipped into reverse.

Rosenau said DaimlerChrysler does not consider the test to be valid.

However, on Thursday, the company issued a press release advising Grand Cherokee owners to carry out several "checks and balances" to make sure their vehicles are securely in "park." Owners should:

* Make sure the gearshift indicator is in the "P" position.

* Listen for a click when the shift lever moves into "park."

* Ensure that the button on the gearshift is all the way out.

* Push the gearshift as far forward as it can travel.

* Take the key out of the ignition.

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