WASHINGTON -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened two investigations covering about 1.2 million Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles to probe ignition switch issues similar to those in Chevrolet Cobalts that prompted the General Motors recall crisis.
One investigation concerns whether a safety defect exists in some 525,000 Jeep SUVs from ignition switches that may slip out of the “run” position when bumped by a driver’s knee, which may cause airbags to fail to deploy in a crash.
The second is looking into the scope and effectiveness of a 2011 recall of 2010 Dodge Grand Caravans, Chrysler Town & Country minivans and Dodge Journey crossovers for ignition switches could slip from “run” to “accessory” mode. The recall query covers some 700,000 of the minivans and crossovers from the 2008-10 model years.
At the heart of both investigations is the potential link between airbags that may not deploy in a crash and ignition switches that inadvertently slip out of the “run” position while being driven. The agency is exploring the connection amid the GM recall crisis over faulty ignition switches that could easily slip out of the “run” position and deactivate airbags. GM's switches have been linked to 13 deaths.
NHTSA said in statement that it has examined how ignition switch position affects the airbag deployment strategies of all major automakers as part of a broader effort to understand the link between switches and airbags.
NHTSA said it received new information from Chrysler about its airbag control software that says an ignition switch falling out of the “on” position could deactivate a vehicle’s airbags in a crash after the vehicle’s reserve power is depleted, which can occur in as quickly as 150 milliseconds. The agency noted that while it has received complaints about stalling in the vehicles covered by the investigations, it is unaware of any instances of airbags that failed to deploy. NHTSA has also received no reports of injuries related to the issues being investigated.
The new information, plus more than 50 consumer complaints, prompted the investigations.
The Jeep investigation covers some 525,000 Jeep Commanders from the 2006 and 2007 model years and Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 2005 and 2006 model years. NHTSA received 32 consumer complaints, including one involving a crash, alleging that the vehicles could stall if the driver’s knee bumps the ignition switch.
The complaints allege that accidentally bumping the SUV’s key fob or chain with the driver’s knee or leg while driving can cause the ignition switch to fall into the “off” or “accessory” position, shutting down the engine, affecting steering and brakes and possibly disabling airbags in a front crash that would normally deploy them.
'Over travel' issue
According to NHTSA, with the investigation into the Grand Caravan, Town & Country and Journey, Chrysler said the vehicles’ ignition switch could “over-travel” after being started and get stuck between the “run” and “accessory” position, even with the engine still running. When stuck, the switches could be jostled by rough road conditions or by drivers bumping the ignition module and fall out of “run” position, potentially disabling frontal airbags in a crash.
Out of 23 total complaints about the issue submitted to NHTSA, “a number” of complaints alleged that 2008 and 2009models not covered by the initial recall may have a similar defect as the recalled 2010 models. NHTSA also says that some 2010 model year owners have reported that the ignition switch problem continued even after their vehicles were recalled.
In a statement, a Chrysler spokesman said the automaker is awaiting additional information from NHTSA and is prepared to fully cooperate with the investigations.