jeepThe U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a safety investigation into an estimated 3 million older model Jeep Grand Cherokees Tuesday on concerns that their fuel tanks may catch fire in a crash.

NHTSA said the investigation covers 1993-2004 model-year vehicles and does not constitute a recall. The agency's investigation could eventually lead to a recall, or it may find that there are no problems.

Fuel Tank's Vulnerable Position

The federal safety review was prompted by the Center for Auto Safety's petition showing that records reveal from 1992 to 2008, the Jeep Grand Cherokees were involved in 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 deaths. It's not clear if those crashes were attributed to a problem with the fuel tanks.

Chrysler said it is cooperating with the investigation and that the model in question "meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety and has an excellent record."

The recall petition said the problem has to do with the fuel tank on those models being located behind the rear axle -- they're made of plastic and extend below the rear bumper, leaving it with nothing to protect it from a direct hit in a rollover or by a vehicle with a low form profile.

"The design is so bad that Chrysler frequently settles lawsuits without extensive discovery and subject to confidentiality agreements," the petition stated.

Report: Like the Ford Pinto

The Center likens the problem to that of the Ford Pinto, which met safety requirements but still were prone to catching fire in rear-end collisions.

The petition profiled numerous instances of fatal crashes, including a 2002 accident in West Palm Beach, Fla. According to the petition, Kenneth Smith was driving a 1995 Grand Jeep Cherokee when he was rear-ended in an intersection by a Lincoln Town Car.

The Jeep immediately caught fire, the petition said, and Smith suffered severe burns. The petition said Chrysler settled with him for an undisclosed sum.

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