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Ford recalls 421,000 Escapes; consumer group calls for fine

Ford Motor Co.on Thursday launched a recall of 421,000 Escapes sold in the U.S. because of a problem that can cause the gas pedal to stick.

But a consumer watchdog group said the automaker has not acted quickly enough and should be fined.

The recall came just a week after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an inquiry into the problem, noting 68 complaints, including 13 accidents, nine injuries and one fatality. The issues affect Escapes from the 2001 through 2004 model years with the 3.0-liter, V-6 engine.

“Our internal investigation was already underway then and we just completed our full technical investigation into the issue and the cause, which led us to taking this action,” Ford spokeswoman Marcey Zwiebel said.

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The consumer group, the Center for Auto Safety, said that based on the age of the vehicles and the number of complaints, Ford has known about the problem for a long time. The group said that quicker action by the automaker might have saved the life of Saige Bloom, an Arizona teen killed in an Escape crash in January.

In a letter to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, the group said that Ford’s suggested fix for the problem was inadequate and asked regulators to impose the maximum fine of at least $17 million against the company for failing to recall the vehicles in 2005, when it was first aware of the problem.

Such a fine is not without precedent. Two years ago, Toyota paid record federal fines of nearly $50 million for failing to promptly inform regulators of defects in its vehicles and for delaying recalls.

“Ford takes claims that our vehicles are unsafe very seriously, and we believe we have acted appropriately in our reaction to the information and data that was available to us,” Zwiebel said. Ford said it “had some anecdotal knowledge” of damaged cruise control cables starting in 2005.

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NHTSA urged Escape owners to get their vehicles fixed but also Thursday said its investigation into the defect “remains open.... NHTSA will continue to monitor any future issues involving a stuck throttle or unintended acceleration in these vehicles to ensure there are no additional safety risks that warrant further action.”

Ford said the problem occurs because of inadequate clearance between the engine cover and the cruise control cable. This can cause the throttle to stick when the accelerator pedal is fully or almost fully depressed.

It plans to fix the problem by having dealers raise the engine cover by replacing a fastener. This will provide adequate clearance for the cable, Ford said.

“Rather than replace the defective cruise control cable, Ford uses a cheap fastener to raise the engine cover to try to provide enough clearance so the cable doesn’t jam,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. He said NHTSA should require Ford to replace the cruise control cable.

Ford said its repair fixes the problem.

Regardless, it will be several weeks before Ford has the parts for the repair at dealerships. Customers worried about a sticking gas pedal can take their Escape to a dealership and have the cruise control cable disconnected and secured in place until the permanent fix can be made.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com


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