Ford Motor Co. Escape sport-utility vehicles are being investigated by U.S. auto-safety regulators for possible unintended acceleration after a January crash that killed a 17-year-old girl in Arizona.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is probing about 730,000 Escapes and identical Tributes made by Mazda Motor Corp., including 2002 models like the one that teenager Saige Bloom was driving, the agency said yesterday in an e-mailed report of the probe. NHTSA received 99 complaints about unintended acceleration in the SUVs, including 13 crashes, eight injuries and Bloom’s death.
The investigation of model years 2001 to 2004 follows a July 10 letter from Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety, to Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, asking him to recall all Escapes from model years 2002 to 2004 for what he called a “lethal cruise control cable defect.”
“We ask that you exercise that moral leadership by recalling all Ford Escapes with the defective cruise control cable in the 2002-04 model years to avoid more deaths and injuries which would otherwise occur if Ford waits” for NHTSA to investigate, Ditlow wrote.
Escapes from the 2002 model year have been the subject of eight previous NHTSA investigations, according to the agency’s database. Some of the vehicles have been recalled for engine stalling, an electrical short in the antilock brake system and leaking brake fluid.
“We are aware of the investigation and we will fully cooperate with NHTSA on it,” Marcey Zwiebel, a spokeswoman for Ford, based in Dearborn, Michigan, said in an e-mail. Ford previously controlled Mazda, based in Hiroshima, Japan.
The probe will get attention from consumers because it’s related to unintended acceleration, for which Toyota Motor Corp. recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide in 2009 and 2010, and to Ford, whose Explorers with Firestone tires led to recalls a decade ago and prompted a tougher auto-safety law, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst based in Santa Monica, California, for auto-researcher Edmunds.com.
“It’s unintended acceleration, somebody had died and this is something we’ve just gone through a few years ago,” Caldwell said. “It seems to be this problem of unintended acceleration is something that comes up every once in a while and doesn’t have any silver bullet. I don’t think ghost in a machine is a good enough answer.”
U.S. investigators from NHTSA and NASA, the country’s space agency, didn’t find an electronic cause for reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The company blamed floor mats that could jam accelerator pedals and pedals that could stick.
Some of the complaints about the Escape allege that the throttle’s failure to return to idle when the accelerator pedal is released is related to repairs performed as part of 2004 recalls for an accelerator cable assembly defect, the auto-safety regulator said.
Because the investigation involves older models, it isn’t likely to affect sales of the Escape, which ranked second last week behind the Nissan Motor Co. Altima among vehicles drawing the most interest from visitors to Edmunds.com, Caldwell said.
“The new Escape is getting a lot of buzz,” she said. “It is a completely different car.”