Feds upgrade investigation into Ford air bags


Monday, July 29th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government has upgraded its investigation into more than 300 complaints about air bag problems in the 1997 Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's probe covers 396,208 vehicles and reports of 23 fires, 21 inadvertent air bag deployments and five injuries.

NHTSA also opened an investigation into 30 accidents in which air bags did not deploy in the 2001 Kia Rio, according to reports of actions taken by the agency in June that were released Monday. One person was killed and 26 injured in the crashes.

Kia did not respond immediately to calls for comment.

The complaints against the Ford cars allege that engine coolant from the heater core or water from the air conditioning system or other sources leaks into the air bag monitor, which causes an electrical short, fire or sudden air bag deployment without a crash.

Ford Motor Co. has issued two bulletins instructing dealers how to make repairs if customers come in with the problem. NHTSA investigators say the damage can be severe with repair costs well into the thousands of dollars.

Ford spokesman Todd Nissen says it is too soon to determine the outcome of the investigation, but the company is cooperating with NHTSA.

NHTSA opens any investigation with a preliminary inquiry where the agency and manufacturer exchange paperwork. That is the stage of the Kia investigation. Investigators can upgrade the probe to an engineering analysis, where they examine vehicle parts for defects, which is the status of the Ford investigation.

An investigation can lead to a recall, but many are dropped.

NHTSA also opened an investigation last month into several General Motors cars with 3.8-liter engines after receiving 44 reports of fire in the engine compartment. No injuries or accidents were reported.

The investigation involves 1996-2000 models of the Buick LeSabre, Park Avenue and Regal; Pontiac Bonneville and Grand Prix; Oldsmobile 88; and Chevrolet Impala. NHTSA has not determined how many of the cars are on the road.

GM recalled 275,811 LeSabre, Park Avenue, Regal, Riviera, 88, 98 and Bonneville cars from the 1996-1997 model years after similar complaints surfaced in 1996.

NHTSA also has three open investigations into complaints that seat belts fail to latch or stay closed. The investigations involve:

_46 complaints against the 1995 Ford Explorer. One complaint said the belt came undone during a crash, but there was no injury. Ford also reported 861 warranty claims involving seat belt failures. There are 258,934 of the SUVs on the road.

_32 reports against the 1995-1998 Kia Sephia and Sportage, including five crashes that injured five people. About 300,000 of the vehicles are on the road.

_12 reports against 1997-1998 Pontiac Transport, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Chevrolet Venture vans. There are 330,000 of the vans on the road.

The Explorer investigation was upgraded, while the other two were opened last month.