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Feds probe 730,000 Ford Escapes, Mazda Tributes over crashes from stuck throttles

July 17, 2012

Federal auto safety regulators will investigate Ford's recall of thousands of Ford Escape SUVs after 99 complaints that the vehicles still suffer from a mechanical flaw that leads to sudden acceleration -- including one from a crash in Arizona earlier this year that killed a 17-year-old girl. The safety advocate who pushed for the probe contends Ford knew of the problem for years, but did nothing to fix it.

The issue dates to 2004, when Ford and Mazda recalled 591,345 Ford Escapes and mechanically identical Mazda Tribute SUVs built between the 2002 and 2004 model year with V-6 engines. In that recall, Ford warned owners that a liner around the cable connecting the accelerator pedal to the engine could move out of position, blocking the pedal from springing back and keeping the engine's throttle open.

Ford first sent dealers instructions on how to fix the problem in December 2004, and began alerting customers to bring their Escapes in for repairs. But 10 months later, in October 2005, Ford sent a different set of instructions to dealers, warning them that if they weren't careful with the repair, they could damage the cruise control cable.

The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington advocacy group, says that problem with cruise control cables should have been its own recall, since some 319,506 Escapes had been potentially repaired incorrectly before Ford sent its updated instructions, and that the kink in the cruise control cable can happen independently.

Since 2004, more than 100 Ford Escape owners have complained of acceleration problems with their SUVs, with 15 citing the cruise control cable specifically. The complaints gained additional notice after the January crash of a 2002 Ford Escape in Payson, Ariz., that killed the driver, 17-year-old Saige Bloom. The Escape Bloom was driving had been fixed under the original repair in January 2005 -- and the Center for Auto Safety provided photos of the Escape showing the cruise control cable kinked.

After a petition from the CAS earlier this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday it would review the original recall by Ford and Mazda -- which never sent its dealers an updated set of repair instructions. NHTSA also expanded the probe to include 2001 Escapes and Tributes, bringing the total number under investigation to 730,000. It said it had records of 99 complaints including 13 reports of crashes from unintended acceleration, including the Bloom case. Under federal law, automakers can face fines from NHTSA for ignoring a safety defect -- as Toyota did in 2010, paying NHTSA $50 million over  a series of defects that led to sudden acceleration.

Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said Ford knew Escapes were prone to sudden acceleration and did nothing to fix it, despite repeated warnings from customers and experts that identified the problem. In a letter earlier this month, Ditlow called on Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally to "exercise...moral leadership" and order the recall.

"There's no question there's going to be a recall," Ditlow said. "The question is how big is the fine going to be."

A spokeswoman for Ford said the company was aware of the NHTSA probe and would cooperate with it. Ford has previously said it was investigating the Bloom crash but had reached no conclusions, and that it would "take appropriate action" if required.