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US investigates complaint that woman was trapped in burning SUV


DETROIT (AP) — U.S. safety agencies are investigating possible electrical problems in older Dodge Journeys after a woman was trapped and died when her SUV caught fire in December.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it is investigating whether faulty door locks and windows could prevent people from getting out of SUVs during an emergency.

Documents posted Friday on the agency’s website say the probe covered more than 82,000 trips as of the 2009 model year. The investigation was opened after the woman’s death on December 9.

A complaint filed with the agency says the woman stopped on the side of a road when warning lights started flashing, windshield wipers came on, horn started to honk, windows wouldn’t go down and doors wouldn’t open. The complaint alleged that the fire apparently started in the engine and spread, trapping the woman inside.

“The driver was unable to exit the vehicle, resulting in her death,” the agency wrote in documents.

Stellantis, which makes Dodge vehicles, expressed condolences to the woman’s family and said it was cooperating with NHTSA.

Agency documents don’t say where the fire happened, but the Wisconsin State Journal reported in January that 73-year-old Mary Frahm died when her Journey caught fire near Madison on Dec. 9.

Frahm had called her fiancé and told him she pulled up on the side of the road after the Journey started having electrical problems. She later called back and said smoke was coming from the dashboard and she smelled a burning smell, the paper said. She called 911, but by the time first responders arrived, flames had engulfed the SUV, the paper reported.

In 2009, Chrysler LLC recalled about 17,000 Journeys because an unused electrical connector could corrode and short circuit, possibly causing a fire, according to NHTSA documents.

The Journey owner’s manual states that the doors can be unlocked manually by pulling up on a plunger at the top of the door trim panel.

Michael Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, says drivers should first try to pull up on the plunger to escape if their vehicle’s electrical system malfunctions.

Beyond that, escape is difficult because many windows now have plastic laminated between two layers of glass and are difficult to shatter. He suggests keeping a metal tool in the car and familiarizing yourself with which windows are tempered glass and can be shattered with the tool.

Laminated glass, he said, helps prevent people from being thrown from cars in an accident.

He said there is a need to standardize a way to unlock doors or somehow escape from all cars.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.