If you are like many people when a vehicle recall notice arrives, you may quickly glance at it to see if there are any ‘flashing lights’ or bold letters ordering you not to drive.
If not, if the wording loses you in a haze of phrases like ‘possibly might’ or ‘maybe a chance of’, then you most likely toss the notice aside for future review.
Sometimes that review happens, sometimes not. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says its data indicates that even the most serious safety recalls generally achieve no more than a 70 percent response rate by owners and, in some cases, the figure can drop below 30 percent.
But, tragically, the accidental death of Anton Yelchin, the 27-year-old actor best known for his role in several recent Star Trek movies, has thrust vehicle recalls – and their potential consequences – straight into the forefront.
Yelchin’s vehicle, a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, was one of three models (alongside the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedan) that Fiat Chrysler recalled in April due to roll-away risk.
These vehicles all were equipped with an unintuitive "e-shifter" that does not deliver the usual tactile response of being shifted into position. Instead, gear position is displayed via an indicator light which may lead to drivers exiting the vehicle mistakenly thinking that it was in Park, according to the NHTSA.
The problem reportedly has resulted in 121 crashes, 41 injuries – and now possibly Yelchin's death as well.
Whether the Jeep's shifter played a role in the Yelchin’s death is far from certain, but police say the actor apparently started his vehicle, exited it, and walked down his driveway. The Jeep then inadvertently either rolled or began to drive in reverse under power, crushing him against a gate.
“The whole electronic shifter issue is a real concern right now," said David Cole, director-emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research. "People may think they've shifted the car into 'Park' but (very possibly) it's not."
“An incident like this is going to raise the question about our confidence that electronics will perform with a high level of reliability."
The electronic shifter on the 2014-15 Grand Cherokee vehicles is a particularly troublesome example. While it may look somewhat like a conventional gearshift lever, it operates quite differently. Instead of firmly sliding into a set position for each gear, it simply rocks forward and back, making it quite easy to mistake one gear for another — NHTSA determined after investigating dozens of complaints about the design.
“It is confusing and odd and then it doesn’t have any safety mechanism,” Jonathon Linkov, Consumer Reports‘ deputy auto editor, told CBS News. “What we would like to see is that there is a fail-safe so at the end of the day you don’t have a problem with cars going to launch forward, roll backward, move in some way that the consumer’s not expecting it.”
The recall was announced by FCA in April, and includes 2014- and 2015-model-year Grand Cherokees built between July 16, 2012, and December 22, 2015. The recall affects 811,586 vehicles in the U.S.
FCA began mailing notices to owners May 14, and owners were reportedly given instructions on how to properly operate the shifter as well as supplemental information that echoed the vehicle driver’s manual.
The company has been aware of this issue for some time, and changed the shifter design on the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger for the 2015 model year, and the Grand Cherokee for the 2016 model year.
FCA said the affected vehicles all have “warning chimes and alert messages” if their driver-side doors are opened while the engine is running and the vehicle is in a gear other than park.
“However, investigation suggested these measures may be insufficient to deter some drivers from exiting their vehicles without selecting Park, so FCA US will enhance the warnings and transmission-shift strategy on these vehicles,” FCA said in a statement. “The enhancements will combine warnings with a transmission-shift strategy to automatically prevent a vehicle from moving, under certain circumstances, even if the driver fails to select Park.”
If you believe you have one of the affected recall vehicles, but have not received a notice, please don't ignore the issue. You can check Chrysler’s recall site here: http://www.chrysler.com/webselfservice/chrysler/Recall.html.
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