By Julie Watts

(KPIX 5) — Nearly five months after Chrysler was supposed to notify drivers that some of its older model cars may stall on the road, KPIX 5 ConsumerWatch has learned that Chrysler is finally sending letters to more than 150,000 car owners.

Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is facing criticism for failing to hold the carmaker accountable for the delay.

Cloverdale resident Gary De Zorzi is one of the affected owners. He said he’s been terrified for months to fill up his 2006 Chrysler 300C because almost every time he pulls out of a gas station, his car loses power and stalls in traffic.

“I had no power steering, no power brakes. It got to be very very scary,” said Di Zorzi.  He explained it usually took several attempts to restart his car, forcing other drivers to slam on their brakes or swerve to avoid hitting him.

Last May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration questioned Chrysler about an “apparent increasing trend” of “vehicle stalls after refueling” based on hundreds of similar complaints to NHTSA. In at least 13 percent of the incidents the agency said, “either the vehicle could not be immediately restarted or (was) difficult to start.”

In Chrysler’s response to NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations, Chrysler acknowledged that stalls in its 2005 and 2006 Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Magnums were”increasing after 55 months of service,” or four and a half years on the road.  Most of the affected vehicles have been on the road for 7 to 8 years.

The automaker acknowledged that it was aware of more than 1,300 alleged stall incidents including at least four crashes, one injury, and 60 legal claims that may be attributed to a “condition” that allows the fuel tank to overfill.

After conducting a preliminary evaluation, NHTSA chose not to investigate further, telling KPIX the issue did not “show an unreasonable risk to safety.”

In a recent hearing, NHTSA’s general counsel reportedly said the same thing about the General Motors ignition issue which has now been blamed for at least 13 deaths.

Ben Kelly of The Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy organization, is critical of the agency for being too soft on car makers when it comes to stalls.

“Too often NHTSA has failed to determine that stalling is a safety defect” said Kelly who used to work for the Department of Transportation, NHTSA’s parent agency.

“Any vehicle that can stall while it’s being operated is unsafe” he added, comparing a stalled car to a boulder in the road and citing deadly incidents where cars have stalled on train tracks.

“A car in front of another car, regardless of how fast it’s going, that suddenly stops for no reason… is suddenly an obstruction in the road. A low speed stall can be a very deadly incident” insists Kelly.

In spite of several complaints to NHTSA about stalls in the affected Chrysler vehicles at highway speeds, NHTSA points to low speed as its primary reason for deciding not to launch an investigation or order a recall – citing nearly word for word what the car maker told it.

In its letter to NHTSA on 8-9-2013 Chrysler states:

“Data shows that stall after refuel incidents present a low risk of accident or injury. The majority of stall after refuel incidents occur at low speeds or when the vehicle is stopped.”

NHTSA’s closing findings 2-10-2014:

“The condition that is causing the majority of stalling incidents in the subject vehicles occurs at a stop or low speed and allows the vehicle to be restarted immediately. The condition represents a low risk to motor vehicle safety and is adequately addressed by Chrysler’s extended warranty. This preliminary evaluation is closed.”

Kelly suggests NHTSA’s “miniscule budget, tiny staff and lack of expertise mean that all too often they are forced to rely on the information given to them by the manufacturers and are handicapped from pursuing vigorous follow-up investigations and research.”

NHTSA closed its Preliminary Evaluation stating the issue was “adequately addressed by Chrysler’s extended (fuel tank) warranty “after Chrysler told the agency it had already begun notifying owners in of the warranty extension and the stalls in January of 2014.

Yet, as of April 21st, 2014, KPIX 5 discovered Chrysler still had not extended the warranty nor did it notify customers, dealers or Chrysler customer service reps of the “condition” that had been causing cars to stall in traffic at an increasing rate.

“Having said it’s going to do that, failing to do it, and then having one of those cars crash and hurt somebody, (Chrysler) is  very vulnerable in a lawsuit” warned Kelly.

De Zorzi said he brought his car into the dealer several times between February and April of 2014.  Initially, the mechanic insisted there was no known problem and suggested he fix the issue by only filling up half way, or doing laps in the gas station parking lot so the car would stall before he got out into traffic.

When De Zorzi insisted the stalls were a safety issue, the mechanic said De Zorzi would have to pay more than $1,300 to replace the fuel tank and referred De Zorzi to Chrysler Customer Service for reimbursement.

Chrysler Customer Service echoed the mechanic and said that there were no known issues on his vehicle. Chrysler reps declined his offer to email them a copy of NHTSA’s public findings.

That’s when De Zorzi turned to KPIX 5 ConsumerWatch, who contacted both De Zorzi’s dealer-mechanic and Chrysler Corporate. Within 15 minutes, De Zorzi received a call from the dealer offering to fix his car for free.  Chrysler sent the following statement to KPIX:

“A supply-chain issue delayed the launch of this campaign. The delay also affected our internal communications. Neither Chrysler Group dealers nor its call-center personnel had any official knowledge of the extended-warranty action until April 22, well after Mr. DeZorzi’s inquiries. Chrysler Group is reimbursing the customer for repairs made at an independent service garage. Mr. DeZorzi’s dealer has also ordered the appropriate replacement part for installation at no charge. He will receive a free rental vehicle while his car is being repaired. Chrysler Group sincerely regrets this incident. Mailings to all customers who may be affected by this campaign will begin shortly.”

Coincidently, Chrysler dealers and Chrysler customers service reps were officially notified of the stalls and extended warranty on the same day that KPIX 5 contacted Chrysler.

NHTSA would not respond to questions about whether or not it would hold the car maker accountable for the delay in sending its notices. However Kelly points out “NHTSA has no legal obligation to do that because it was not part of the warranty extension process.” He explains that if NHTSA has opened an official investigation or required the warranty extension then it would have more authority.  Instead, Chrysler volunteered to extend the warranty and NHTSA closed its Preliminary Evaluation.

NHTSA issued the following statement to KPIX:

“NHTSA is aware that Chrysler did not begin its owner mailing for the lifetime warranty at the end of January 2014, as it had originally informed ODI.  We contacted the company on two occasions about the delay in notifying vehicle owners about the extended warranty, and we understand that Chrysler finally began mailing out lifetime warranty notices to affected vehicle owners last week.  Mailing is expected to be completed by May 6. No further comment.”

NHTSA also refused to comment on why it deems low speed stalls with a loss of power to be “a low risk to motor vehicle safety.”  It also would not elaborate on whether it is the car maker – or NHTSA – that determines if a safety hazard warrants a recall.