Huge Recall, but Many Cars Unfixed

April 13, 2008By CHERYL JENSENThe New York Times

AFTER six recalls to correct problems with millions of Ford Motor Company cruise-control switches blamed for almost 1,500 fires,the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took an unusual step. In February, it issued a consumer advisory urging owners whose vehicles had not yet been fixed to have the switches disconnected immediately.

Vehicles are continuing to catch fire and buildings are continuing to catch fire because the remedy hasn't been effected yet, Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the safety agency, said. This is a defect that could possibly have dire consequences, and we wanted to do what we could to try to make people more aware of the need to get vehicles back to the dealer quickly if not for the permanent remedy, at least for a short-term remedy.

The recalls which included what the government called a recall of a recall began in 1999. They covered some 10 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles from 1992-2004, a record number recalled for a single problem.

Ford had already set the record for the largest recall, which also involved a potential fire hazard. That was for 7.9 million vehicles with ignition switch problems.

The agency's February advisory concerned a cruise-control deactivation switch that could develop a short circuit.

Regulators say that could cause a vehicle to catch fire even while it is parked and the ignition is off. The switch's function is to cut off the cruise control when the driver taps the brakes.

The safety administration says it can connect 65 fires to switch failures, but the problem could be far greater: the agency received 1,472 complaints or allegations of engine compartment fires related to the switches before the investigation was closed in August 2006. Because investigators were often unable to contact owners, not enough data could be collected to make a final determination on many complaints. The agency also received 60 more fire complaints since the inquiry ended.

The agency has not linked switch failures to any deaths, but at least three wrongful death suits have been filed against Ford.

The February advisory stated that many dealers would disconnect the switch as a drive-through service for customer convenience an interim step until parts are more available.

An auto safety advocate, Clarence Ditlow, said the consumer advisory was too little, too late and illustrated a more serious problem: the need for the agency to offer more protection to consumers by changing the way it handles such safety problems.

Instead of allowing Ford to string out the recalls over almost a decade, the agency should have required a recall of all the vehicles at the beginning, said Mr. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

Ford and the federal safety agency said the recall came in stages because in 1998, when the investigation began, it was not clear why the switch was failing especially since the problem was occurring in some models and not in others. There is no need to recall a vehicle for which there is no problem, Mr. Tyson said.

But as the vehicles using this switch aged, failure rates started to increase in certain models. Then, Ford and the agency said, the models were recalled.

This was one of the most complex and mysterious cases we have ever been involved in,Mr. Tyson said. And although we do now understand why the switch was failing, to this day we still have Ford vehicles using that same switch that are not experiencing any unusual level of failure at all.

The fires are believed to occur this way: over time, applying the brakes creates a bit of vacuum that can cause the failure of a seal in the switch. Brake fluid can then leak into the switch and cause corrosion. Over time, the corrosion can cause the switch, which is powered all the time, to overheat and ignite an electrical fire.

Ford stopped using the switch on 2002 models, Mr. Sherwood said. But the design was inadvertently carried over to some early 2003 models and the 2004 F-150 Lightning.

Mr. Tyson said his agency was unhappy with Ford over the pace of the recalls. Given the safety implications of this problem, we'd like to see a recall remedy like this move very, very quickly, he said.

The agency is also disappointed with how few owners have brought in their vehicles for repairs. Only about half of the 10 million vehicles have been fixed. The average completion rate for a recall is around 70 percent. For a problem as serious as this one, the agency would like a 100 percent completion rate, or close to it, Mr. Tyson said.

He also noted that in February Ford had to do a recall on the recall, affecting 225,000 cars and trucks.

These vehicles were fitted with a wiring harness between the cruise control deactivation switch and the speed control unit. It was supposed to cut off electrical current to the switch in case the switch overheated.

In some cases the wiring harness was the right fix for the right vehicle, said Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesman. But in the majority of cases, it didn't work because the fuse was positioned on the wrong side of the harness and did not provide the intended protection.

In a smaller number of cases, the dealers installed the wiring harnesses on the wrong vehicles.

Mr. Sherwood said Ford had worked hard to urge consumers to fix their vehicles. Ford has gone well beyond what's regulated in communicating with customers, Mr. Sherwood said. In the case of the earlier recalls, the company sent out four or five mailings, he said.

There were two additional recalls last year: one in March covered 156,000 cars and trucks and one in August was for 3.6 million more vehicles. (Not included in those figures was a recall by Mazda, also in August, of 76,000 1998-2002 B-Series trucks with the same switch.)

He said the pace of repairs had previously been slowed by a parts shortage. If the part was not available, the interim fix was to disconnect the cruise control, but some owners did not want to do this. “We have heard reports of people not wanting the switch disconnected because they don't want to lose speed-control functionality, Mr. Sherwood said.

Mr. Sherwood said that because of the comparatively low number of owners who responded to the earlier switch recalls, Ford had not stockpiled enough parts for the unprecedented demand for repairs last September, after the August recall.

Mr. Sherwood said that Ford expects to notify customers by May to bring in their cars for full repairs.

Mr. Ditlow said the way the recall dragged out over almost a decade was inexcusable. This is fundamentally a design flaw, and the earlier ignition-switch recall was the same thing,Mr. Ditlow said. “It was a powered circuit that was hot at all times, even when the car was parked.

If there is a design defect, all vehicles with that design should be recalled, Mr. Ditlow said.