Overruling his own auto safety experts, Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt has decided that Ford Motor Co. does not have to recall millions of cars with automatic transmissions that can slip from "park" into "reverse" and take off under their own power.
Instead, Ford will mail 20 million car owners a sticker for their dashboard warning that "unexpected and possibly sudden vehicle movement may occur" if the car is not properly parked. More than 130 deaths have been blamed on Ford cars that jumped into reverse.
The problems have occurred in Ford vehicles with C3, C4, C6, FMX or JATCO automatic transmissions.
Ford agreed to send the stickers and warning letters to end a 3 1/2-year-old dispute with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which issued a preliminary finding last summer that the transmissions had a safety defect.
If that ruling had been upheld by Goldschmidt, Ford would have been faced with the biggest auto recall in history, costing more than $100 million.Printing and mailing the stickers and letters is expected to cost the automaker $10 million, company officials said yesterday.
The decision not to order a recall was Ford's good news from NHTSA yesterday. The bad news was that Ford's new "world cars," the Escort and the Lynx, flunked a government crash test, as did Chrysler's new "K cars," the Aries and the Reliant [Details, Page D7].
The ruling in the Ford transmission case came after weeks of negotiation between the government and Ford's attorneys, led by former transportation secretary William Coleman.
Ford Vice President Herbert Misch hailed the settlement, saying "we have always known there was nothing wrong with the design of our automatic transmissions." He said Ford agreed to send the warning stickers and letters "to eliminate misunderstandings and misinformation."
Auto safety advocate Ralph Nader denounced the ruling as "a fraud" and said, "It's not going to save any lives."
"Goldschmidt, in overruling his technical advisers who urged the recall of 10 million vehicles, produced a policy decision that is bad for the safety of American motorists. . . .," Nader said.
Ford still faces hundreds of lawsuits over deaths and injuries allegedly caused by the transmissions slipping into gear, Nader added. Accusing Goldschmidt of failing to enforce the federal law requiring recall of cars with safety defects. Nader said the Center for Auto Safety plans to take the transportation secretary to court to enforce a recall.
The settlement was announced while Goldschmidt was in Japan, his two top deputies were on vacation, the department's chief counsel, who signed the order, was out of town and NHTSA chief Joan Claybrook was home with the flu.
Other DOT and NHTSA officials would not comment on differences between Claybrook and Goldschmidt over the matter. The final negotiations with Ford were taken out of Claybrook's hands and turned over to the department's lawyers, who report to Goldschmidt, agency officials confirmed.
NHTSA officials reportedly were willing to compromise with Ford and order a recall of about half the automatic transmission-equipped cars, since some kinds of Ford transmissions are more prone to the problem than others.
Until yesterday it had been estimated that 16 million Fords had been equipped with the transmission, including models made from 1970 to 1979. But in a letter to car owners submitted for NHTSA approval, Ford admitted for the first time that 1980 cars also are involved. The company also raised the number of vehicles involved to 20.9 million.
Ford's Misch, who is in charge of safety and emission controls, said any problem with the car "is the result of driver's inadvertent misplacement of the gear selector . . . and is not attributable to any defect in vehicle design or construction."
Ford repeated that claim in a settlement letter to Goldschmidt and insisted that "the agency's initial defect determination in this case is unjustified."
In accepting the settlement, DOT counsel Thomas G. Allison told Ford that the department did so "without agreeing with your interpretation of the merits of this safety controversy." NHTSA officials said yesterday that their initials diagnosis of a defect "still stands."
The dashboard sticker to be sent to owners of the cars will carry this warning:
"Important Safety Precaution
"Before leaving the driver's seat, you should always:
"1) Make sure the gear selector lever is engaged in Park
"2) Set the parking brake fully
"3) Shut off the ignition
"Unexpected and possibly sudden vehicle movement may occur if these precautions are not taken.
"Refer to your owner's manual for other important safety information."
Ford officials said the stickers and warning letters will be mailed as soon as possible.