Ford Motor Co. has issued seven safety recalls on its new Escort and Lynx subcompact line since last October, and neither Ford nor the federal government publicly announced the actions, officials of the company and the Reagan administration said yesterday.
The disclosure of the recalls, following a report in a Detroit newspaper Monday, set off a debate over whether the Reagan administration has changed government policy on publicizing recalls.
Roger Maugh, Ford's director of automotive safety, said no public announcements were made because the defects were considered low-risk and Ford didn't want to cause "unjustified" public alarm. Public acceptance of the new Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx subcompacts and their sports coupe versions has been essential to Ford during the past nine months as it battles a long slump in auto sales.
Ford said no longer is issuing press releases on recalls routinely unless "significant" safety hazards are involved. Several Ford officials said they assumed this policy is in line with a new approach by the Reagan administration, which has not initiated any publicity about recalls since taking office.
But Raymond Peck, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration insisted that there has been no change in policy concerning recall publicity. "The answer to that is a flat, unequivocal 'no'," he told reporters at a press conference yesterday.
When publicity is necessary to insure that motorists are aware of major safety hazards, as in the case of older vehicles that may not be in the original owners' hands, there will be public announcements of recalls, Peck said. However he said the NHTSA is not responsible for announcing recalls simply because the car companies choose not to. "The purpose of this agency is not to create publicity . . . and not to excoriate or condemn the manufacturers," he said.
"We are responsible for safety, not for publicity," Peck said.
Joan Claybrook, a consumer activist who ran the NHTSA during the Carter administration, said that in the past, manufacturers publicized their own recalls -- except for the trivial cases -- because they knew that if they didn't, the NHTSA would.
"They haven't put out one press release on a defect. That certainly is a change of policy," Claybrook said. (In fact, the NHTSA did issue a release on a major recall on Jan. 21, the day after President Reagan was inaugurated, but that represented action by the outgoing Carter administration.)
Told of her comments, Peck responded, "My predecessor is flat-out wrong."
The controversy followed a report in The Detroit Free Press that Ford, Chrysler Corp. and Volkswagen of America all have conducted unpublicized recalls in the past year, mailing recall notices to owners and informing the NHTSA of the action, but not making any public announcements.
Ford confirmed the recalls, saying most involved only a small number of cars. The exceptions were the recall of more than 116,000 Escort and Lynx models to check on a possibly dangerous build-up of static electricity in the pipe between the gas cap and the fuel tank. The potential problem arose when Ford switched from metal to plastic pipes to reduce weight and cost, a spokesman said.
Another recall covered the 23,000 Escort and Lynx models equipped with automatic speed controls, following the discovery that a pressure leak might cause the cars to accelerate on their own. (A driver could stop the malfunction by touching the brakes, as with a normally functioning speed control.)
Informed that The Free Press was about to publish the recall story, Chrysler announced its intention to recall 110,000 of its K cars -- the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant -- to locate and replace faulty switches that could prevent stoplights from working during braking. A Chrysler spokesman said the company informed the NHTSA last week that it would make the recall and was planning notification of dealers and car owners when it learned about the impending news report.
Chrysler had not made a decision on whether to announce the recall publicly, the spokesman said.
VW didn't announce the recall of 130,000 U.S.-built 1980- and 1981-model Rabbits and pickups with fuel- line problems.
General Motors Corp. said it has issued news releases on 11 of 16 recalls involving 1981 model vehicles, omitting the minor cases. American Motors Corp. says it publicly announces all recalls.