It started with a story from the Sripps Phoenix ABC15 Investigators about a 17-year-old Arizona girl who died after a crash in Payson, Ariz., earlier this year.
Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms to the Investigators that it has opened an investigation into 730,000 model year 2001-2004 Ford Escapes and Mazda Tributes with 3 liter, six cylinder engines. The investigation involves a potential safety defect that could lead to stuck throttles and vehicle crashes.
The federal investigation is focusing on "the potential failure of the throttle to return to idle when the accelerator pedal has been released in certain Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute vehicles."
The agency says that it has found 99 complaints alleging stuck throttles – including 13 crashes, 9 injuries and one death.
The agency's summary of its investigation includes a reference to one death that occurred in January 2012. Saige Bloom died after a crash in Payson, Ariz., on Jan. 27, 2012 when her car accelerated out of control.
A POSSIBLE INCORRECT REPAIR
The ABC15 Investigators found that Ford had issued a safety recall involving the accelerator cable on more than 470,000 2002-2004 Escapes – including the one Saige was driving the day she died. In December 2004, Ford sent a recall notice to Escape owners, stating that the problem could cause "elevated engine speeds" and even a "vehicle crash."
At the same time, Mazda issued the same recall on the accelerator cables of 121,000 Tributes, which were made side-by-side at a Ford plant outside of Kansas City, Mo.
Ten months later, Ford sent out an update to that repair to dealers -- but not Ford owners. Mazda did not send an update to its dealers at the time.
In the documents sent to dealers, Ford writes that the reason for the update is "to inform dealers that updated illustrations and a warning have been added to the technical instructions…to help prevent damage to the speed control cable while performing the accelerator cable replacement procedure."
One attachment says "Caution" and shows a "CORRECT" and two "INCORRECT" illustrations involving removing the accelerator cable.
The update went to dealers in October 2005, 10 months after the recall was first announced. Records show that by that time, more than 300,000 of the affected Escapes had already been repaired.
Those owners had their SUVs repaired without the new warning and instructions from Ford.
Records show that Saige Bloom's Escape also had an accelerator cable recall repair before the new instructions went to dealers.
Last week, Mazda issued the updated instructions to all of its dealers after ABC15 questioned the automaker about the issue.
NHTSA's summary of its investigation highlights the updated repair instructions, saying "some of the complaints also allege that the failures may have been related to repairs performed as part of safety recalls initiated in 2004."
The agency says its investigation will "assess the scope, frequency and safety-related consequences of the alleged defect."
PINPOINTING THE POTENTIAL DEFECT
The ABC15 Investigators were there when an inspector hired by the Bloom family went under the hood of Saige Bloom's wrecked car for the first time.
Bill Williams uncovered a damaged speed control cable, which he says had stuck the throttle open far enough to make the car travel at very high speeds.
"And when it happens, there's nothing the driver can do to un-jam it from inside the passenger compartment," Williams said.
NTHSA says some of the nearly 100 complaints it's investigating pinpoint this very issue: "Some of the complaints, including a fatal crash incident that occurred in January 2012, allege that the failure was caused by interference between the speed control cable and the appearance cover at the throttle body cam."
Earlier, Ford told the ABC15 Investigators that the company is working with government regulators to determine the cause of the Bloom accident. Ford's own investigation is not yet complete.
Read Ford's full statements on the Bloom crash below.
There have been no lawsuits filed about the Bloom accident and NHTSA hasn't drawn any conclusions in its investigation yet.
THE GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATION
NHTSA's investigation will include whether Ford and Mazda should have filed reports with NHTSA that would have initiated a second recall. The agency will also look at other owner complaints of "accelerator cable failure, cruise control cable failure and/or stuck throttles," according to NHTSA records.
The agency says it takes these complaints very seriously. Ford and Mazda have made no comment yet to ABC15 about today's announcement by NHTSA.
But Joan Claybrook, a former head of NHTSA herself, thinks action from the government is coming seven years too late.
"NHTSA is the overseer," she said. "They regulate and they should have been on top of this – and they weren't."
FORD MOTOR COMPANY STATEMENT ON THE RECALL:
Ford is committed to informing our customers when any
issues arise involving vehicle safety. In Dec. 2004, Ford issued a recall for 470,245 2002-2004 MY Escape SUVs to replace the accelerator cable. This included all Escape SUVs built from May 30, 2001 through Jan. 23, 2004.
A service bulletin update was shared with dealers on October 6, 2005 to ensure technicians were installing the cables properly. All service actions and updates, like this one, remain in the Ford dealer system indefinitely or until the fix is completed. This allows dealers to check on any recommended or outstanding repairs when the vehicle is brought in for service.
Escape owners were informed of this recall. Owners with any concerns or questions about this recall are always encouraged to contact our customer relationship center at 1-866-436-7332 with any questions.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY STATEMENT ON SAIGE BLOOM CRASH:
We offer our deepest sympathies to the Bloom family for their tragic loss. We are in the middle of our investigation and have not reached any conclusions. We will work closely with NHTSA to determine the cause of the crash and will take appropriate action if warranted by the outcome of the investigation.