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 77 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 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 Sept. 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 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 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.
Richard Boyd, NHTSA's acting director of defect investigations, wrote in a Nov. 24 memo that the agency knew of 238 cases in which the air bags deployed inadvertently and noted Ford made production changes to the trucks in 2006 and 2007 to fix the air bag wiring and other issues.
Boyd's memo said Ford did not believe the issue "warrants any corrective action" because the number of reports and incidents were low, owners received "adequate warning" from the air bag warning light and the "resulting injuries are minor in nature." The government said Ford should conduct a recall "to remedy this defective condition."
Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said in a statement Wednesday 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.