Runaway Jeep Grand Cherokees have led to crashes, car wash owners say.

A 74-year-old woman just had her white Jeep Grand Cherokee washed at Arrow Car Wash on Lancaster Ave. when the car sped into a guardrail, over the embankment, and onto the cars at Piazza Acura of Ardmore. (Photo credit NDN)

Linda Spinelli had a wedding to attend.

So on a Monday in November, she took her son's 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee to the Spa Car Wash in Berwyn, where Spinelli was a regular customer.

She sat in the lobby while a young worker climbed into the driver's seat. And as the Jeep exited the wash bay, Spinelli and other customers watched in horror.

The Jeep suddenly lunged forward, she said, as the driver swerved to avoid pedestrians and slammed into large planters and four cars, including a Maserati.

The employee told car wash owner Chris Debbas the SUV "just took off" and wouldn't stop, even after he slammed on its brakes. Debbas said it was unlike anything he had seen.

Debbas did some research and took two steps: First, he banned Jeep Grand Cherokees from his car wash for a few weeks. Then he erected a 14,000-pound concrete barrier at the wash exit to prevent the same thing from happening again.

"If we didn't have it, then we wouldn't" wash Jeeps, Debbas said. "It'd be too risky."

Tales of runaway Grand Cherokees at car washes date back more than a decade, once even prompting the International Car Wash Association to advise its members to handle Jeep Grand Cherokees with extreme caution.

Politicians and engineers have twice petitioned federal regulators to investigate claims of sudden Jeep acceleration.

But the critics and their claims haven't unearthed any indisputable evidence, or enough to interest federal regulators.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has declined to investigate the complaints, and Jeep's parent company says the car wash claim is, in effect, hogwash.

"These allegations have been levied against the vehicle by car wash owners for many, many years," said Michael Palese, a spokesperson for Fiat Chrysler, adding that the claims had been "pretty widely refuted by safety advocates."

Still, the rumors linger - and get new life after reports about incidents like the one in February when a 74-year-old woman leaving the Arrow Car Wash in Ardmore accelerated and drove her Jeep up and over a snowy embankment and on top of several parked cars at Piazza Acura of Ardmore, an adjacent dealership.

The woman told police her car "took off." But the car wash manager said the woman had been having difficulty driving through the tunnel moments earlier. He and the police blamed the accident on driver error.

Chrysler and federal regulators say that is the usual cause of such accidents.


Hard to prove


The NHTSA says sudden-acceleration complaints are among the most common submitted to the agency, and its records show such complaints at car washes cover a range of makes and models.

The agency requires proof of mechanical failure of both the throttle and brake systems to substantiate claims of unintended acceleration.

A review of accident reports submitted to NHTSA found several complaints about Grand Cherokees accelerating at car washes, but they were not the only vehicles reported to do so.

In a petition delivered to NHTSA in August, the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington lobbying firm, asked the agency to investigate the "totally integrated power module" in model year 2007-14 Chrysler SUVs, including Jeeps, citing defects such as failed air bag deployments and sudden acceleration.

NHTSA won't discuss whether or when it will investigate. Chrysler noted that the petition made no mention of car washes.


'Scary to witness'

Emir Cercioglu said he heard the roar of an engine being floored as he watched a Jeep Grand Cherokee speed out of the lot of the car wash he manages in Turnersville two or three years ago.

Attempting to maneuver the vehicle to safety, Cercioglu said the driver - one of his employees - hugged the edge of Route 42 and was able to bring the vehicle to a stop without incident by putting it in neutral.

"It's scary to witness it," Cercioglu said. "My driver had white knuckles gripping the wheel."

It was the fourth time, Cercioglu said, he saw a Jeep Grand Cherokee suddenly accelerate after being shifted into drive fresh from the wash. In 26 years working in the car wash industry, he said, he had never had such problems with other cars.

The first incident happened about 10 years ago in Wilmington, Cercioglu said, when a Grand Cherokee flew out of the lot, hitting two cars and a tree, causing about $30,000 in damage, which the shop's insurance company paid, he said.

Since then, Cercioglu has considered himself lucky. In three other instances at three car washes, including his at current job in Turnersville, Cercioglu said the Jeeps were able to be stopped without causing damage.

The only way he knows to stop an out-of-control car is to put it into neutral, Cercioglu said. After the most recent case, he started making his employees idle the cars at the end of the wash before putting them into drive.

The International Car Wash Association issued its advisory in 2006 after a 53-year-old man was hit and killed by a Jeep Grand Cherokee at a Connecticut car wash.

Palese, the Chrysler spokesman, characterized the association's response to sudden-acceleration reports as an "aggressive" campaign against the carmaker, for which Chrysler threatened to sue.

Since then, the association has softened its position. Eric Wulf, who became CEO in 2009, said the association receives reports of sudden acceleration in Jeep Grand Cherokees as well as other vehicles and periodically issues advisories that are not model-specific.

Douglas Newman, a onetime Connecticut car wash owner, said he witnessed four sudden-acceleration accidents during his 15-year career - and all involved Grand Cherokees. In 2006, Newman started a blog to chronicle such incidents. The site now includes more than a dozen personal accounts - which Newman believes show that accelerating Jeeps are more than a coincidence.

He said if he were still in the car wash business, he would not service Jeeps, but he said he understood why others still do.

"It's hard to turn away customers," he said.