(Adds comments by safety experts, adds consumer complaints on Jeeps)
By Bernie Woodall and Marilyn W. Thompson
DETROIT/WASHINGTON, June 18 (Reuters) - U.S. safety regulators are investigating about 1.2 million Chrysler vehicles for potential ignition-switch problems, expanding a probe beyond General Motors Co to another Detroit automaker.
Chrysler is the subject of two investigations involving possible nondeployment of air bags because of potentially defective switches that can be turned off in older Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler models, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. No deaths or injuries have been reported, NHTSA said.
NHTSA, which administers safety recalls, continues to investigate similar issues at GM, which this year has recalled more than 20 million vehicles worldwide, including 6.5 million for switch-related issues that could disable air bags in crashes.
The new Chrysler investigations suggest that issues with faulty ignition switches that could cause air bags to fail may be more widespread than once believed and eventually could touch other vehicle manufacturers besides GM and Chrysler.
The safety agency on Wednesday said the Chrysler probes resulted from NHTSA’s recent “communication with automotive manufacturers and suppliers regarding airbag design and performance related to the position of the vehicle ignition switch.”
It added: “As part of NHTSA’s broader efforts to evaluate this issue, the agency examined all major manufacturers’ airbag deployment strategies as they relate to switch position.”
NHTSA’s acting administrator, David Friedman, earlier this year told lawmakers that, prior to GM’s recall of the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, the agency did not fully understand the link between the cars’ ignition switch and the ability of the air bags to deploy in a crash.
NHTSA said it had received complaints of engine stalling in the Chrysler models, but was not aware of any incidents where the air bags did not deploy.
Chrysler, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said it was “awaiting additional information” from NHTSA and would cooperate fully with the investigations.
German automaker Daimler AG, Chrysler’s previous owner, said on Wednesday it was not affected by the NHTSA investigations of Chrysler switches.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based watchdog Center for Auto Safety, said: “All manufacturers who have vehicles that may cut off while on the road face potential recalls.” He said no automaker is immune, in large part because of the emphasis on the stalling issue brought on by the GM recall crisis.
Consultant Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, said he is disturbed that NHTSA is reacting to the “defect du jour” of ignition switches rather than taking a “systematic and scientific approach” to all safety issues.
One of the NHTSA investigations of Chrysler, involving about 525,000 Jeep SUVs made between 2005 and 2007, focuses on complaints about switches that can be bumped by a driver’s knee to the “off” or accessory position, turning off the engine and potentially disabling air bags in a frontal crash.
GM cited similar issues in several of its switch-related recalls, including 2.6 million Cobalts, Ions and other cars linked to at least 13 deaths.
NHTSA also is investigating about 700,000 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans and Dodge Journey crossovers from model years 2008-2010 for complaints about switches that can be turned off when driving on rough roads, which could prevent air bags from deploying in a crash.
In March 2011, Chrysler recalled 2010 Grand Caravan, Town & Country and Journey models for “inadvertent ignition key rotation.”
NHTSA said it opened the latest recall query “to assess the scope and effectiveness” of the previous recall, and determine whether the recall should be extended to 2008-2009 models.
One of the earliest complaints about Chrysler engine stalling was received by NHTSA in November 2004, from the driver of a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee: “Driver’s knee would hit the ignition switch while driving. This caused the vehicle to shut off.”
The driver of a 2006 Grand Cherokee complained in May 2006 about the engine stalling after tapping the key while going 25-30 miles per hour, then crashing into a tree: “The dealership and the manufacturer were alerted and determined there was nothing wrong with the vehicle.”
In a complaint filed in March 2014 with NHTSA, the driver of a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country wrote: “Ignition switch shuts off while driving and engine stops running. Possible from bumps in road or bumping key ring with driver’s knee. Has happened more than three times.”
GM on Monday recalled 3.4 million older midsize and fullsize sedans, including the Chevrolet Impala and the Cadillac DeVille, saying the switches on those cars could be bumped out of the run position by a combination of heavy key chains and rough roads.
In addition, GM last Friday recalled 511,528 Chevrolet Camaros from 2010-2014 because a driver’s knee could bump the key fob out of the run position and turn off the engine.
GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, returned before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday to face harsh questions about why the No. 1 U.S. automaker waited more than a decade to recall millions of vehicles with the defect linked to at least 13 deaths. Barra, who became CEO only in January but is a GM veteran of more than 30 years, has said she did not become aware of the problem until December 2013. (Additional reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit and Edward Taylor in Frankfurt; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Matthew Lewis)