Ford Motor Co. is sharply expanding a recall of its popular F-150 pickup truck to about 1.2 million vehicles because front-seat airbags could inflate without the vehicle being involved in a collision.
Federal safety regulators said there have been at least 269 incidents — more than a third of which resulted in injuries — making it the most "ever recorded in any inadvertent airbag deployment investigation or recall" in the history of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The F-Series is the best-selling truck in America and last year was the nation's top-selling vehicle of any type.
This year, Ford recalled 144,000 of the pickups, saying that the problem was mostly isolated to 2005 and 2006 trucks built at Ford's now-closed Norfolk, Va., factory.
But the small size of the recall drew the interest of federal safety regulators who thought that the automaker should have called back far more trucks. Ford is now recalling trucks built at factories in Dearborn, Mich., and in Kansas City, Mo., from the 2004 through 2006 model years.
It also is recalling 2006 models of the Lincoln Mark LT truck, which was built in Dearborn but not previously identified with the problem.
In a letter to NHTSA, Ford said that "after continuing discussions with the agency, and to reassure customers of Ford's commitment to safety, and to eliminate any possible customer confusion, Ford is voluntarily recalling the remaining population of vehicles."
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said he was pleased with Ford's decision to expand the recall.
"We hope to continue working cooperatively with auto manufacturers to ensure safety defects are addressed quickly for the driving public," he said.
NHTSA said there had been at least 98 injuries from the surprise airbag deployments, including two drivers who suffered permanent vision damage. Other drivers reported chipped teeth and neck and back injuries.
Lengthy and expanded recalls of the type Ford is conducting could damage a brand, said Mike Rozembajgier, a vice president at the consulting firm ExpertRecall.
"When announcing recalls, companies want to be sure that, to the best of their ability, the recalls are exhaustive and include all products that have the potential to put consumers at risk," he said. "Recalls that need to be expanded are likely to draw twice the media attention, regulatory scrutiny and public outcry than one large, all-inclusive recall."
Brian Johnson, an analyst at Barclays Capital, estimated that the recall would cost Ford about $150 a vehicle, or about $180 million. Ford shares fell 17 cents, or about 1%, to $14.81 on Thursday.
Ford said the inadvertent deployments were preceded by a dashboard warning light indicating that the restraint system should be serviced. In most instances the airbag went off within a few seconds after the engine was started. But there were reports that some deployments occurred while the vehicle was on a public roadway.
Ford said that during the truck assembly, a "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. If not serviced, and unique circumstances occur, an inadvertent driver frontal airbag deployment may occur."
Ford will send letters to owners of the vehicles, asking them to take the trucks to a dealer for replacement of the wiring harness. The repair takes about half a day.