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Chrysler Crash Test Tape to Remain Under Wraps Until October

August 28, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government’s highway safety arm said Monday it was withholding tapes of a Chrysler minivan crash test until October to avoid undermining the replacement of millions of the minivans’ rear liftgate latches.

In March, Chrysler Corp. said it would replace rear-hatch latches in minivans sold from 1984 to 1994 to strengthen them because of fears the rear liftgates could pop open in crashes. The next month, Chrysler said it would also replace or repair the automatic release mechanism in the rear hatch latch for minivans of those same years, plus 1995.

The repairs affect about 4 million minivans, and Chrysler will start notifying customers in September to bring in their vehicles. At least 35 people have died in accidents in which the liftgates opened on the Town and Country, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans, according to public files.

Ralph Hoar & Associates, a Virginia consulting firm, went to court Monday to try to force the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to release footage of its Chrysler minivan crash tests.

The NHTSA pre-empted further legal wrangling by telling U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler it anticipated closing the minivan case in mid-October and making the tapes available to the public at that time.

Hoar claims the tapes show that crashes into the minivan’s side at speeds under 30 mph forced the rear latch gate to pop open and dummies seated in the rear were ejected.

The NHTSA would not discuss its investigation. But sources close to the investigation said the tapes show side-impact crash tests involving the ejection of dummies through the Chrysler rear liftgate.

``Once people see the drama of these crash tests, they will clearly understand the risks associated with these latches,″ Hoar said in an interview after the court session.

Hoar’s consulting firm researches auto safety and has among its clients lawyers who sue auto companies.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator Philip Recht said the agency needed to keep the tapes ``until we are convinced that (Chrysler’s) proposed replacement latch is a safe latch.″

The NHTSA is wary of releasing the footage before then because of the legal role of a similar tape that was publicized during the agency’s attempted forced recall of General Motors Corp.’s 1980 X-body cars. The court threw out any evidence gained from numerous phone calls after the tape’s showing because it had ``poisoned the public mind,″ Recht said. The NHTSA lost the case.

``Our mission is to protect the safety of the motoring public,″ said Recht. ``We’d be weakening our case substantially by putting this videotape out there now.″

A lawyer for Chrysler, Lew Goldfarb, called Monday’s hearing a ``non-event.″ He said the first letters asking customers to bring in their vans for the repairs would go out Sept. 4. The company needs until late November to notify customers with the automatic release mechanism because that latch had to be designed from scratch, Goldfarb said.

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