PHOENIX (KNXV) - After seven months, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed its investigation into a safety defect and recall involving stuck throttles in 2001-2004 model year Ford Escapes and 2001-2008 Mazda Tributes.
Despite three reported deaths related to the defect and pressure from auto safety advocates, the agency is not pursuing any civil fines against the automakers for failing to recall the SUVs years earlier.
"It's a total miscarriage of justice," said Clarence Ditlow, auto safety advocate and executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.
The federal investigation began after we exposed a defect involving damaged speed control cables, stuck throttle complaints and a series of accidents.
In January 2012, 17-year-old Saige Bloom died after her 2002 Ford Escape accelerated out of control in Payson, Ariz.
That launched a five-month investigation by our Scripps station in Phoenix, which exposed a pattern of accidents, complaints, lawsuits and two other deaths stemming from the same defect in the same model year SUVs around the country.
Less than two weeks after NHTSA opened its investigation, Ford and Mazda announced a major recall of more than 700,000 2001-2004 model year Ford Escapes and 2001-2008 Mazda Tributes equipped with 3.0L V6 engines and speed control for potential stuck throttles.
The NHTSA investigation describes the problem: "If the speed control cable becomes damaged near the throttle connector, it may articulate into a position of interference with the engine cover, trapping the throttle fully open." Experts say that leaves the car traveling at very high speeds.
But some safety experts said the recall from Ford came seven years too late.
"Ford knew about the defect in 2004 and changed the vehicle in 2005," Ditlow said.
NHTSA's investigation states Ford redesigned the Escape's engine cover in model year 2005, providing additional clearance for the speed control cable so it wouldn't become stuck. Now, it's the same repair Ford is making on the 2001-2004 Escape models as part of the recall Ford issued after Saige Bloom's death.
"It's another piece of evidence that Ford knew about this problem, knew how to fix it, and yet didn't recall over half-a-million vehicles that it could and should have recalled," Ditlow said.
He believes NHTSA should fine Ford for failing to recall the SUVs in a timely fashion when the company realized there was a problem.
Asked why the agency isn't pursuing penalties against Ford, NHTSA said in a statement:
Safety remains NHTSA's primary focus and we urge consumers impacted by this and any other recall to have their vehicles promptly serviced. We have closed our defect investigation. NHTSA will continue to monitor any future issues involving a stuck throttle or unintended acceleration in these vehicles to ensure that there are no additional safety risks that warrant further action.
"Saige Bloom died in January 2012 because there wasn't a recall of the 2001 to 2004 Escapes," Ditlow said. "There's simply no way around that fact."
In Ford's statement:
We took swift action as soon as we completed our full technical investigation into the cause of the issue and determined that a recall was in the best interest of our customers.
NHTSA said it has no reason to challenge the recall.
ADDITIONAL STATEMENT FROM FORD MOTOR COMPANY:
While we were aware of the tragic death of Saige Bloom, we did not have the opportunity to investigate the vehicle involved in that accident until shortly before we announced the voluntary safety recall. And our internal investigation was not solely based on that one incident. We had a volume of data to review and analyze in order to ensure our investigation was thorough and properly implemented.