Fiat Chrysler Recalls Late-Model Jeep Wranglers for Airbag Wiring Fault

Michael GrossmanOctober 19, 2016 6 minutes

Another day, another auto recall for airbags that blow up, burst out randomly, or fail entirely.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) has announced a recall of approximately 224,000 vehicles with potentially-faulty airbag sensors. The worldwide recall affects certain 2016 and 2017 models of the Jeep Wrangler SUV.

In information released to the NHTSA, Fiat Chrysler notes that the airbag sensor's wiring can loosen or detach, restricting or eliminating transmitted signals to the airbag computer. As that computer governs the action of the vehicle's safety measures during a collision, that means the airbags will not deploy and seat belt pretensioners will not engage in the event of a crash.

How Bad is the Problem?

Fiat Chrysler alleges that no customers have been hurt because of the stated issues, and they have not received any complaints. According to the company, no affected 2017 models of the Jeep Wrangler have been sold, which cuts down on potential injuries related to the recall.

The problem behind the recall was discovered during in-house crash testing of the Wrangler. According to Fiat Chrysler, the Wrangler's left headlight was found to rotate out of place during collisions, and that displacement pulled the relevant airbag wiring loose.

Fiat Chrysler's denial of any injuries or deaths seems very premature. This is a very serious matter. Any vehicle with disengaged safety measures poses a significant threat to its occupants. Without the protection of airbags or tightening seat belts, drivers and passengers in Wranglers are more or less at the mercy of physics in the event of a crash.

Everybody is aware to varying degrees that airbags essentially work by hitting you with a high-velocity balloon to put you back in your seat and counter the forward propellant force exerted during a crash. It can give you a bloody nose, a headache, and in some cases, a few cracked ribs, but compared to the alternative, most would agree that is a small price to pay.

Not everyone is as clear on exactly how seat belts work. We strap in because we've been told to as long as we've been riding in cars, but until one is actually needed, it doesn't bear much thought. What's important to note is that seat belts are actually computer-controlled as well. The simple clamp-down you feel if you yank on the belt wouldn't be enough to hold you onto the seat. In the event of a crash a seat belt pretensioner is engaged. At that point, the airbag computer triggers a small-scale explosion of the same sort that propels the airbag outward. The explosion snaps the seatbelt downward (and your body backward) at the same time inertia tries to pull your body forward, and ideally the two forces cancel one another out.

Seatbelt pretensioner
Basic model of an engaged seat belt pretensioner.

Nobody has the luxury of staying perfectly still if a serious crash happens, but the vehicle's safety measures do a great deal to mitigate the damage that comes from slamming unhindered into a steering column or exiting a car through the windshield. If the Wrangler's wiring prevents those safety measures from engaging, drastic injury may not be guaranteed, but its risk is highly amplified.

Wrangler Has an Extensive Recall History.

It's probably worth noting that the Jeep Wrangler has already experienced a series of recalls, including one for a separate mechanical problem that could also affect airbag deployment.

In May of this year, Fiat Chrysler issued another recall that actually affected a wider range of Wranglers, from 2007 to 2016. Over half a million units were alleged to develop airbag problems if their clocksprings (another element involved in the airbag circuit, located in the steering wheel) attracted too much dust or dirt.

Fiat Chrysler's official notice read as follows:

"Located in a vehicle's steering wheel, a clockspring forms part of the circuit that helps control airbag function. An investigation by FCA US determined excessive exposure to dust and dirt - consistent with extensive off-road driving or driving with a vehicle's top and/or doors removed - may compromise the clockspring and eventually prevent driver-side airbag deployment in a crash."

As a brand, Jeep makes many of its vehicles with off-road capacity. Dust and dirt are meant to be its bread and butter, and while drivers aren't generally dragging their steering columns directly through the mud, it isn't unreasonable to think that time and travel could put a lot of grit into a Wrangler's inner workings. If you're a brand that actively encourages its buyers to spend time off-road, it would probably behoove you to take precautions against this sort of malfunction.

Fiat Chrysler once again alleged that no injuries stemmed from the issue, and notices were issued to owners. Among the Wrangler's other black eyes are problems with its transmission, brake fluid leaks, and a large recall for possible airbag propellant ruptures thanks to the wide-reaching Takata airbag scandal.

What is the Proposed Solution?

Fiat Chrysler claims that repairs will soon be available to owners of the affected vehicles at no cost. They will commence notifying owners about setting up service appointments in the imminent future. When the offending vehicles are taken in, dealers will reroute the wiring at no cost to owners.

During this unfortunate limbo period between when the problem was discovered and when the fix is publicly available, there is still ample time for Wrangler owners to be injured in wrecks. Fiat Chrysler is not off the hook simply for having discovered the problem they should have addressed before allowing the vehicles off the factory floor.

What Can I Do if I'm Injured in an Accident?

Fiat Chrysler's announcement of the recall allows us to posit one of two things:

  1. They let a vehicle off the line without sufficient quality control and testing to spot and fix a potentially lethal flaw, or
  2. They found the error but determined that the specific type of crash to trigger the airbag failures was a statistical unlikelihood, so they shipped it anyway.

Based on Fiat Chrysler's stated position ("We just found this in crash tests"), it seems as though they'll be claiming the first of those two options. That is the less appalling theory, but ignorance is not an excuse, especially in potentially-fatal situations like airbag and seat belt failure. They may still be legally liable for damages caused by their product.

If your Jeep Wrangler's airbags do not deploy in the event of an accident and you are injured, you may be entitled to compensation from the manufacturer. It is understood that manufacturers are required to make consumer products as safe as possible for use as intended, as well as foreseeable misuse (such as crashes). When a manufacturing error creates vehicles that do not have safety features to protect consumers in the event of wrecks, they have not done everything they can to keep their end-users safe, and this can lead to allegations of negligence, a common cause of action in civil litigation.

Some important points to remember if you experience airbag and/or seatbelt failure in an auto accident:

  • Keep your vehicle. If you believe you may have a claim against a car manufacturer, the faulty vehicle will be an important piece of evidence. Its internal computer will have recorded vital crash data that can prove invaluable to mounting a case. There will also be the objective evidence of whether the airbags visibly deployed or not. If you are insured (and I sincerely hope that you are, as it legally required in Texas), your provider will likely want to take your vehicle before it will issue you compensation for the accident. Many people miss the opportunity to seek damages against a manufacturer because they consent to have their car towed and destroyed by insurance. If you think you have a case, don't let it go immediately. Claim investigators can look it over without taking it.
  • Your health is the most important thing. Obviously you should address your physical well-being before considering next steps. There may be ER trips or medical visits to take care of, and your health will always come first. Once you have your footing again, I encourage you to contact a personal injury attorney for a consultation. Reputable firms, Grossman Law included, do not charge callers seeking counsel about potential claims.
  • Attorneys want to help. Many consider the legal profession to have something of an unsavory reputation, but the majority of attorneys are zealous consumer advocates who are genuinely on their clients' side. Most injury attorneys operate on contingency, meaning that they would only be paid if the claim were to successfully settle, and again, there's no obligation simply from calling to learn more about your rights. There is nothing to lose by seeking help.

I know auto manufacturers do what they can to prevent harm, but unlike, say, a teddy bear factory, a car maker is selling complicated, multi-ton, explosion-powered machines capable of serious harm to people both in- and outside of them. It behooves Fiat Chrysler and every other auto maker to design their products carefully, test them thoroughly, and remain transparent to the public in the event that the first two steps aren't enough. This particular faulty component may only be present in one year's model, but Wrangler's lengthy recall history coupled with the often-questionable judgment of the auto industry as a whole when it comes to safety violations makes it a lot harder to enjoy a road trip these days.