Ford to Recall '05-'06 F-150 Pickups to Fix Airbag

February 23, 2011

Ford Motor Co. will recall 144,000 F-150 trucks over concerns raised by the government that air bags could deploy without warning, the company said late Tuesday.

That decision is a turnaround for the Dearborn automaker, which has steadfastly refused to recall the pickups in the face of federal government pressure, but the recall is not as broad as regulators wanted.

The company will recall 144,000 F-150s from model years 2005-06 "for a relatively low risk of inadvertent air bag deployments," Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said late Tuesday. The recall includes 135,000 trucks in the United States and 9,000 in Canada.

About a month ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent a letter to Ford, asking the automaker to recall about 1.3 million 2004-06 F-150 pickup trucks after dozens of people reported being injured when the air bag deployed inadvertently.

NHTSA, which has been investigating the issue since September 2009, took the unusual move of sending a formal letter for a recall after Ford refused to voluntarily do so. NHTSA convened an agency panel in December to approve the decision to send the recall request letter.

The agency said in a statement Tuesday that it is reviewing Ford's limited recall and will determine whether it is sufficient — since it proposes to recall one out of 10 vehicles sought by NHTSA. The agency's assistant administrator can make a formal finding that a safety defect exists. A public meeting would follow in which Ford would make its case and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland would decide whether to order a recall. Ford could challenge a recall order in U.S. District Court.

In resisting a recall, Ford had argued that the number of incidents was low, that the injuries were minor and that "consumers received adequate warning" because the air bag warning light was on and they should have gotten the vehicle serviced.

In its investigation, NHTSA reviewed complaints that said 238 driver air bags on 2004-06 F-150 vehicles inadvertently deployed without warning causing 77 injuries. The injuries included chipped and broken teeth, cuts to the arm, hand and face, lacerations and minor burns. Two owners reported a loss of consciousness as a result of air bag deployment.

The agency upgraded its investigation to an engineering analysis in January 2010.

Typically, automakers agree to a recall after NHTSA completes an engineering analysis and makes a request.

"(Automakers) will negotiate with the agency — they may agree to a service campaign or an extended warranty or a more limited recall," said Allan Kam, a former NTHSA attorney. "When NHTSA goes eyeball to eyeball with the industry, the industry usually blinks because of the risk of adverse publicity."

Ford said Tuesday that it would work with NHTSA.

"Ford is committed to safety and will continue to work cooperatively with NHTSA in addressing any further questions," Sherwood said.

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, an automotive safety research group that works with plaintiffs attorneys, said a recall could cost Ford "hundreds of millions of dollars."

"This is an obvious safety problem," Kane said.

In response to reports of inadvertent air bag deployments, Ford in January 2006 made a stop-gap change to the 2006 F-150 by adding a protective tape over the sharp metal edges of the horn plate.

For the 2007 model year, Ford changed the air bag wire routing, added a better wire protector sleeve and redesigned the horn plate tooling to eliminate the potential of a sharp edge.

NHTSA found that the F-150 driver-side air bag wires can be chafed by a sharp metal edge of the horn plate during normal vehicle operations or due to road vibrations. Once the wire insulation is cut, a short can cause the air bag to deploy.

The recalled vehicles were built at the Norfolk Assembly Plant from November 2004 through June 2005 — one of the plants where the F-150 was assembled at the time.

"During assembly, a specific air bag wire located in the steering wheel could have been improperly positioned so that it may chafe, expose bare copper and create the potential for a short circuit that would illuminate the warning lamp," Sherwood said.

Ford "will continue to monitor the vehicles built at the Kansas City Assembly Plant and provide NHTSA regular data updates."

Ford said most consumers have gone to a dealer to get the air bag light addressed. Ford has identified 703 reports where the air bag warning light was on — and in at least 106 cases, the wire was chafed.

Source: The Detroit News