U.S. auto safety regulators announced Friday they are investigating older Dodge Journeys after a Wisconsin woman died when her SUV caught fire and she couldn’t get out.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it’s investigating electrical problems and whether the vehicle’s door locks and windows prevented her from escaping the burning vehicle.
A NHTSA document released Friday says the investigation covers approximately 82,500 Dodge Journeys from the 2009 model year.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported in January that 73-year-old Mary Frahm died when her Journey caught fire Dec. 9 near Madison. Frahm pulled over when dashboard warning lights started flashing, and called her fiance. A number of electrical glitches occurred: Windshield wipers came on, the horn started honking, the speedometer was “going crazy,” she said. Windows wouldn’t go down — and the electric door locks wouldn’t work. Later she called back to say smoke was entering the cabin from the dashboard.
Frahm called 911, the newspaper said, but when first responders arrived, the SUV was engulfed in fire.
“The driver was unable to exit the vehicle, resulting in her death,” NHTSA wrote.
Stellantis, the company that owns the Dodge brand, offered sympathy to Frahm’s family and said it is cooperating with the investigation.
In 2009, about 17,000 Journeys were recalled to fix an electrical connector that could corrode and start a fire. But the newspaper report said Frahm’s vehicle was not a subject of that recall, according to a VIN search. The nonprofit Center for Auto Safety complained in 2014 that a part called a Totally Integrated Power Module, or TIPM, in older Chrysler products can cause a number of electrical problems. The Dane County sheriff’s department said its investigation showed Frahm’s vehicle had a TIPM, which “had a documented history of possibly shorting out or causing some sort of an electrical or mechanical abnormality with the vehicles.”
The Journey owner’s manual says the doors can be unlocked manually by pulling up a plunger on the top of the door trim panel. Michael Brooks, head of the Center for Auto Safety, says drivers should try to pull up the plunger first to escape if their vehicle’s electrical system malfunctions.
Otherwise, Brooks said, escape is difficult because many windows now are laminated and hard to break, to prevent people from being thrown from a vehicle during a crash. Brooks suggests drivers keep a metal tool in the car and becoming familiar with which windows are tempered glass and can be shattered with the tool, typically side windows.
Brooks said the industry should standardize a way to unlock doors or otherwise escape from all cars.