NHTSA tracks elusive fire culprit

By Jayne O’Donnell, USA TODAY Thu Jun 2, 6:16 AM ET

Heidi Edinger of Cypress, Texas, was helping her 7-year-old son with homework in November when she heard a popping noise coming from the garage. Assuming her dog had knocked something over, she finished up with her son and headed for a shower. Then she heard scraping. Edinger opened the garage door. Her 2000 Ford F-150, which she’d driven home 30 minutes earlier, was in flames.

To people such as Edinger whose trucks burned their houses and garages, the issue is simple: It’s Ford’s fault. But to the automaker, which faces a potential multimillion-vehicle recall, the blame is less clear and the precise cause of the fires elusive. Federal investigators and Ford engineers have linked some of the fires to a cruise-control deactivation switch. They’re examining why the switch, made by Texas Instruments and used on at least 10 million Ford vehicles, has caused fires on only some of those vehicles while leaving the vast majority of the other Ford models unscathed. In January, the company recalled about 740,000 2000 Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator sport-utility vehicles and Ford F-150 pickups that contained the switch. By then, 64 fires had been reported among those models. Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley says the automaker recalled the 2000 vehicles because their rate of fire seemed “unusually high.” In March, the

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation of 218 reported fires in the 1995-99 and 2001-02 versions of those vehicles. There are 3.7 million of those vehicles. “The thing that nobody understands at this point is why some are failing and some aren’t,” NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson says.NHTSA has been testing the switches and examining switches in vehicles that caught fire to narrow down what makes some vehicles with the switch more prone to fire than others. Among the possible factors being studied:

• How close the switch is to the master cylinder.

• How much brake pressure it’s subjected to.

• Heat, humidity or other environmental factors.

Jim Haines, a mechanic in McLean, Va., says the master cylinder shouldn’t be a “hot spot” and says the placement of the switch under the hood could be a factor if water is getting in. All the reports of fire involved vehicles that were parked – some of them for days. Kinley says Ford is investigating all the complaints and hasn’t been able to link all the reports to the cruise-control switch. The company, she says, thinks some of the fires are attributable to equipment that people have installed on their trucks. Arson, too, is possible in some cases, Kinley says. NHTSA isn’t commenting on its findings.

Ford also notes that more than 100,000 fires unrelated to collisions occur each year, involving different manufacturers, makes and models.Still, even a small number of fires draws attention from federal safety officials. Parked cars that catch fire can be even more hazardous than vehicles in motion; drivers, at least, often have time to stop and get out of danger. Though none of the fire reports involved death or injury, some of the truck owners who lost houses and garages describe narrow escapes.”The firemen told me that if I had gotten in that shower, there’s no way we would have made it out of that house,” Edinger says. “We would have died from smoke inhalation.”Annette Garza was in her apartment behind her father’s house in Weslaco, Texas, last Thanksgiving when she saw flames shooting from his home. Her father’s 1997 F-150, parked in front of his garage, had caught fire and ignited the roof of the house. Her father, Armando Alaniz, had left the house 30 minutes earlier in a different vehicle.

NHTSA and Ford have plenty of experience with fire investigations. In 1996, NHTSA announced what’s still the biggest recall in its history: It alerted owners of free repairs to 7.9 million Ford vehicles that had ignition switches that could catch fire while the vehicle was parked. In June 2004, NHTSA closed an investigation of 1992-97 Lincoln Town Cars, Ford Crown Victorias and Mercury Grand Marquis models – that also had a Texas Instruments cruise-control deactivation switch and were catching fire while parked. In 1999, Ford and NHTSA agreed to recall just the 1992-93 models, which Ford said had a manufacturing defect. Kinley says the switch on the Ford cars involved different parts, different brake pressure and different operating conditions than the switch on the 2000 model-year trucks. NHTSA narrowed down one of the potential problems with these cars during the investigation – brake fluid or water leaking onto the switch, which can lead to corrosion, a short that causes heat and, ultimately, a possible fire. Kinley insists that’s only one of the possible problems Ford is looking at in the trucks.Texas Instruments’ Gail Chandler agrees: “It’s not clear what the cause is.” Chandler stresses that the switch Texas Instruments supplied was just one component in the cruise-control deactivation unit. DuPont, she notes, made some of the film inside the switch.

“We’ve been manufacturing pressure switches for more than 25 years,” Chandler says. “Millions have been used very reliably.” Ford says that it’s notified dealer service shops of the possible problem – along with telling them how to replace the switch on the recalled vehicles – and that blown fuses associated with the cruise-control switch could be a sign of a potential short circuit that could lead to a fire.A month after a fuse was replaced on his 2001 Ford Expedition, Jose Vasquez says the truck caught fire inside his garage and destroyed the garage and family heirlooms in the attic above it. Ford says it’s still investigating all the fire reports and has no answers yet. “We haven’t completely ruled out any one of the dozens of factors we are investigating to identify the root cause,” Kinley says.


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