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Chrysler executives probably realized their chance for success was slim because courts have given wide latitude to government regulatory agencies, said David Kelly, former acting NHTSA administrator under President George W. Bush.
"They have some very smart people at Chrysler and probably looked into a crystal ball and didn't think this would end the way they wanted it to," Kelly said.
NHTSA said in a statement that it's pleased with Chrysler's decision. The agency plans to keep investigating the issue as it reviews recall documentation from Chrysler.
Ditlow said he is cautiously optimistic that the solution will make the Jeeps safer.
He urged Chrysler to add Jeep Cherokee SUVs from 1993 through 2001 to the recall. The Cherokees are under investigation for the same problem.
Chrysler will begin notifying owners about the recall in about a month, the company said.
The last time an automaker defied a NHTSA recall request was early in 2011, when Ford refused to call back 1.2 million pickup trucks for defective air bags. Ford later agreed to the recall after NHTSA threatened to hold a rare public hearing on the issue.
In a statement on June 4, Chrysler said its review of nearly 30 years of data showed a low number of rear-impact crashes involving fire or a fuel leak in the affected Jeeps.
"The rate is similar to comparable vehicles produced and sold during the time in question," the company said. It also said NHTSA left some similar vehicles out of its investigation.
But NHTSA found at least 32 rear-impact crashes and fires in Grand Cherokees that caused 44 deaths. It also found at least five rear crashes in Libertys that caused seven deaths. The agency calculated that the older Grand Cherokees and Libertys have fatal crash rates that are about double those of similar vehicles. It compared the Jeeps with the Chevrolet S10 Blazer, Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Isuzu Rodeo, Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Montero, Suzuki Sidekick and Suzuki XL-7.
Among the 51 deaths was Remington "Remi" Walden, a 4-year-old boy from Bainbridge, Ga., who was killed when a 1999 Grand Cherokee driven by his aunt was hit from behind by a pickup truck in March 2012. The child was on his way to a tennis lesson when the SUV was struck. The fuel tank leaked, engulfing the Jeep in flames and killing the boy, according to a lawsuit filed against Chrysler by his family.
"Numerous witnesses saw Remi struggling to escape and heard him screaming for help," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges that Chrysler placed the gas tank in a "crush zone" behind the rear axle and knew the location was dangerous, and that the company failed to protect the gas tank against rupturing.
In court papers, Chrysler denied the allegations and said the pickup truck driver's negligence was the sole cause of the boy's injuries.