Ford Recall of 3.8 Million SUVs and Pickup Trucks that Pose Fire Risk Delayed by Lack of Replacement Parts

For quite some time, the Ford Motor Company refused to acknowledge there was anything wrong with almost 4 million of its SUVs and pickup trucks despite the fact that hundreds of them were reported to have caught fire as a result of a defective cruise control system.

As the investigation into the cause of the fires became more focused, credible automotive experts as well as Ralph Nader expressed outrage that Ford was not addressing the issue in a responsible way even though a number of deaths had also been linked to the alleged problem.
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Then, no longer able to avoid coming to grips with the fact that a massive number of its vehicles were potential fire traps, in a short letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (http://199.79.180.162/prepos/files/Artemis/Public/Recalls/2005/V/RCDNN-05V388-9228.PDF) (NHTSA), the Director of Ford Motor Company’s Automotive Safety Office finally announced a major recall involving some 3.8 million vehicles in September 2005.

As required by federal regulations (49 CFR Part 573) the letter was accompanied by a detailed report describing the history and scope of the problem.

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Although the attached report includes the acknowledgement that there have been allegations that “three deaths” and other injuries have been linked to fires caused by the faulty switch, Ford strongly denies the connection.

The recall actually expanded upon one already in operation and being monitored by the NHTSA (http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/recalls/results.cfm); however, it marked the first time that the giant automaker itself had openly acknowledged the seriousness and massive scope of the problem.

In August, Ralph Nader demanded the NHTSA alert vehicle owners to the potential fire hazard in numerous models of Ford and Lincoln SUVs and trucks. Nader wrote to Jeffrey Runge, head of NHTSA, insisting he issue a public warning about “life-threatening hazards” from a faulty cruise control switch in those vehicles.

At that point, Ford was in the process of recalling about 750,000 Ford F-150s, Expeditions, and Lincoln Navigators manufactured in 2000.

That recall was to replace cruise control switches which may catch fire in the above mentioned vehicles. The NHTSA, however, was continuing its investigation to determine whether the same fire hazard exists in another 4 million Ford SUVs and light trucks.

The government investigation, which began in March, involves F-150 pickups manufactured from the 1995 to 1999 and 2001 to 2002 and Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigator models from 1997 to 1999 and 2001 to 2002.

The NHTSA had already received more than 550 complaints of engine fires as a result of the cruise control switch in the Ford models.

The most dramatic case wherein one of these faulty switches has been blamed for a serious fire is the one involving the Mohlis family.

As we previously reported, after 911 was called, 74-year-old Darletta Mohlis died in an attempt to escape from her burning house. Her three children and husband, Earl, are suing the Ford Motor Company in a wrongful death action claiming a faulty cruise-control deactivation switch on Mr. Mohlis’s 1996 Ford F-150 pickup truck caused the fatal fire.

In an ongoing investigation of fires linked to faulty cruise control shut off switches in Ford vehicles, CNN had already reported that despite the fact that Ford is aware of 16 million 1992 to 2003 vehicles at risk, only slightly over one million have been recalled.

The switch (manufactured for Ford by Texas Instruments) costs $20.57 and has already being linked to 559 fires reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Many of these fires have completely destroyed the vehicle. In this case, however, Mrs. Mohlis died when her entire house burned down after the family pickup truck caught fire while parked in the garage.

The fires are spontaneous and often occur when the ignition switch is off and the key removed.

This is because Ford designed the switch to remain on or “hot” at all times. When a crack develops in the film (supplied by Dupont) separating the brake fluid from the electrical circuit, the leak will cause a fire.

Since May 1999, Ford had recalled a total of 1,071,000 vehicles in two separate recalls. CNN reported, however, that a document it obtained shows Ford was aware that it installed a total of 16 million of the switches between 1992 and 2003 in the following vehicles:

  • Mark VII/VIII from 1994-1998
  • Taurus/Sable and Taurus SHO 2.3 L 1993-1995
  • Econoline 1992-2003
  • F-Series 1993-2003
  • Windstar 1994-2003
  • Explorer without IVD 1995-2003
  • Explorer Sport/Sport Trac 2002-2003
  • Expedition 1997-2003
  • Ranger 1995-2003

In March 2005, the NHTSA opened an expanded investigation into more than 3.7 million of these vehicles. Ford, however, chose not to recall all of the vehicles arguing that the switch had performed well for years in most vehicle models.

As a result, Ford limited their recalls to those models “with an increasing fire rate report.” One recall notice was clear as to the risk, however.  Ford stopped using the switch last year in favor of a new design.

In the case involving the Mohlis family, inspections of the truck and fire scene were performed by two experts hired by the family’s attorney, officials from the NHTSA, and inspectors from Ford.

The family’s experts, an electrical engineer and a certified fire investigator, believe the switch caused the fire. Ford claims the fire started elsewhere and spread to the truck and the switch had nothing to do with the fire. The NHTSA has made no public statement as to its investigation or findings. Mr. Mohlis stated the truck had been parked in the garage and shut off for four days before the fire.

The mounting pressure from consumer advocates (like Nader), the steady stream of reports of fires linked to the very same switch, the ongoing NHTSA investigation, and consistently bad publicity related to this issue (like CNN’s investigative reports) undoubtedly played a role in Ford’s belated acknowledgment that there was, indeed, a serious problem and it was not going to go away.

The recall is the fourth largest for Ford and, according to NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson, the fifth largest auto recall in the nation’s history behind: (1)1996, Ford recalled 7.9 million vehicles for faulty ignitions; (2)1971, GM recalled 6.7 million vehicles for engine failure; (3)1981, GM recalled 5.8 million vehicles for a rear axle problem; and (4)1972, Ford recalled 4.1 million vehicles for a shoulder-belt problem.

The NHTSA announcement described the remedy as follows:

“AS AN INTERIM REPAIR, OWNERS WILL BE INSTRUCTED TO RETURN THEIR VEHICLES TO THEIR DEALERS TO HAVE THE SPEED CONTROL DEACTIVATION SWITCH DISCONNECTED. AS SOON AS REPLACEMENT PARTS ARE AVAILABLE (EXPECTED MID-OCTOBER 2005), OWNERS WILL BE INSTRUCTED TO RETURN TO THE DEALERS FOR INSTALLATION OF A FUSED WIRING HARNESS. THE INTERIM OWNER NOTIFICATION IS EXPECTED TO BEGIN DURING THE WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 12, 2005. OWNERS SHOULD CONTACT FORD AT 1-800-392-3673.”

Ford’s recall number is 05S28. Customers can also contact the NHTSA directly through its Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-3274236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153), or by going to http://www.safecaar.gov.

Now, ConsumerAffairs.Com

is reporting that: “Ford Motor Co. says that fixing a potential fire hazard in the cruise control system of 3.8 million pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles will be delayed until February because replacement parts are not yet available.”

According to the report, Ford is advising owners of affected vehicles that they “can request that the cruise control system be disabled until the replacement parts are available.”

Previously, ford had assured the NHTSA that the replacement parts would be available in September.

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