WASHINGTON — Under government pressure, Ford Motor Co. said Wednesday it will recall nearly 150,000 F-150 pickup trucks to fix air bags that could deploy without warning, a fraction of the vehicles the government contends should be called back and repaired.
The recall covers trucks from the 2005-2006 model years in the United States and Canada for what the Dearborn, Mich., company calls a "relatively low risk" of the air bag deploying inadvertently.
The government, however, has urged Ford to recall 1.3 million F-150s from the 2004-2006 model years, citing 98 injuries from air bags deploying accidentally. The recall is being closely watched because Ford's F-Series pickup truck is the best-selling vehicle in America.
Ford's leaders have made safety a cornerstone of the company's revitalization, but the truck recall represents the latest safety issue to confront the automaker.
Ford has recalled more than 600,000 Windstar minivans in the U.S. and Canada since August to fix rear axles that can corrode and break, an issue still under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During the past decade, Ford recalled more than 10 million vehicles, including the F-Series pickup, to repair a cruise control switch system that was linked to engine fires.
A Transportation Department spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing Ford's response to see if the F-150 recall was adequate. If the government determines that the recall is too limited, it could seek a rare public hearing to decide whether Ford should widen its safety action.
The last such hearing was scheduled in September 2009, after a New York school bus manufacturer resisted a recall. The company decided to issue the recall before the hearing.
"Scheduling a hearing is very rare, and car companies need to take it seriously," said David Kelly, who served as NHTSA's chief of staff and acting administrator during the Bush administration. "At the end of the day, the companies are going to do what NHTSA wants them to do, and they're just delaying the inevitable."
NHTSA has been investigating the air bag issues for more than a year. In May, Ford told the government that the problems didn't "present an unreasonable risk to vehicle safety" because there was a low rate of alleged injuries and the air bag warning lamp provided an "obvious warning" to drivers.
Ford told NHTSA in May that some drivers reported injuries that included burns from contact with the air bag, bruises, neck and back pain and minor cuts. "Two customers reported broken or chipped teeth and two reported fractures of the extremities (elbow or arm)," wrote James Vondale, director of Ford's automotive safety office.
NHTSA, in a January 2011 letter to Ford released on Wednesday, said the agency knew of 269 cases in which the air bags deployed inadvertently resulting in 98 injuries, some serious. The agency noted that Ford made production changes to the trucks in 2006 and 2007 to fix the air bag wiring and other issues. "The potential for loss of vehicular control poses an unreasonable risk to safety," NHTSA told the company.
Ford told the agency in a response that it did not believe a recall of the entire 1.3 million vehicles was justified based on the agency's analysis and said owners received an adequate warning from the air bag warning light. Ford said NHTSA was requesting a large recall to "affect the behavior of an extremely small group of owners who have shown that they habitually ignored multiple safety warnings."
Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said in a statement Wednesday that the recall covered trucks built at the Norfolk, Va., assembly plant from November 2004 through June 2005. The majority of the complaints involved trucks built during the first shift of production at the Norfolk plant, and the rates of air bags accidentally deploying were much higher in trucks built at the Virginia plant than those assembled at plants in Michigan and Missouri, he said.
Ford said an air bag wire located in the steering wheel could have been improperly positioned so it would chafe, expose bare copper and create the possibility of a short circuit that would light up the air bag warning lamp.
Ford said most of the air bag issues happened within the first few seconds of the vehicle starting up. The company said it was aware of "one customer that jumped from the vehicle" after the air bag deployed while the truck was parked in a driveway.
The recall, which was first reported by the Detroit News, is expected to begin in early March. Owners will be notified and told to bring their trucks to their dealers.