• Aug 1st 2013 at 2:30PM
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Ford has paid the top penalty of $17.35 million to settle government allegations that the company was slow to recall nearly a half-million SUVs last year.

The fine announced Thursday is linked to the July 2012 recall of nearly 485,000 Ford Escape SUVs from the 2001 to 2004 model years. The SUVs, equipped with 3-Liter V-6 engines, were recalled to fix sticking gas pedals that could cause crashes. It's the maximum fine that safety regulators are allowed to levy against an automaker.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contends that Ford knew about the problem in May of 2011, but failed to take action until the agency began investigating the Escapes in July of 2012. The probe was started after an Arizona teenage girl died in an Escape crash in January of last year.

It's the third time in less than a year that automakers have paid fines or reached settlements with NHTSA to sidestep lengthy public battles with the agency. In December, Toyota paid the maximum fine in a case that also involved a delayed recall. Earlier this year, Chrysler reached a deal to install trailer hitches on some older Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys, avoiding a wider recall over charges that the SUVs were prone to fire in rear-end collisions.

Recall delays are a significant problem, said Joan Claybrook, NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter and a leading auto safety advocate. If an automaker can delay a recall, the number of vehicles affected declines, she said. As the number of vehicles that have to be fixed declines, the whole recall becomes cheaper for car companies.

"In the past, a lot of companies have delayed, delayed, delayed and tried not to face the music, only to have it become a big public issue," Claybrook said. "When it becomes a big public issue, they will act immediately."

Ford agreed to the recall in July 2012, a week after asked for information about the Escapes. Eventually Ford turned over the information, and NHTSA found evidence that Ford knew about the problem more than a year earlier.

"It is our job to ensure that manufacturers are held accountable to address safety issues promptly and responsively," NHTSA said in a statement. "Recalls are a serious safety matter."

At the time of the recall, NHTSA said it had 68 complaints about the Escape problem, including 13 crashes, nine injuries and the death in Arizona.

Ford said in a statement that it agreed in June to pay the fine to avoid a protracted dispute with NHTSA. Spokeswoman Kelli Felker said Ford faced a complex situation with a low number of complaints. The problem was compounded by improper repairs made to the vehicles, she said.

"We are absolutely committed to addressing potential vehicle issues and responding quickly for our customers," Felker said Thursday.

Cruise control cables on the older Escapes can snag on the plastic cover atop the engine and cause the gas pedals to stick. For the problem to happen, the pedals must be pushed to or near the floor, and the cruise control cables must have been bent or moved from their original position, Ford said at the time. Cable positions can be changed when the SUVs are serviced, the company noted.

The Escape was redesigned after the 2012 model year, so the problem is not an issue on the current model sold at Ford dealerships.

Dealers were to replace the fasteners on the engine cover, raising them so there's plenty of room for the cruise control cable.

NHTSA said when the Escapes were recalled that investigators would look into whether the sticky throttles could have been caused by repairs made as part of a 2004 accelerator cable recall.

Felker urged Escape owners who have not had their SUVs repaired to take them to a dealer as soon as possible.

Claybrook said it's clear that Ford realized it made a mistake. "It's really important for the agency to penalize these companies for not being timely," she said.

Last December, Toyota paid a $17.35 million fine for failing to quickly report problems to NHTSA and for delaying a safety recall. At the time, it was the largest single fine ever assessed against a car company over safety defects. In 2010, Toyota paid a total of $48.8 million in fines for three similar violations.

The fines are a tiny fraction of both companies' earnings. Last week Ford said it made $1.23 billion in the second quarter, while Toyota made $3.2 billion in the first quarter.

A key difference between the two cases is that Ford doesn't appear to have fought the fine the way Toyota did, Claybrook said.

"If you're going to have a fight with a government agency, be sure you have good grounds to have that fight," she said. "Toyota made a lot of mistakes. Ford is shrewder. They just didn't want to have that fight."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      No wonder auto companies have a hard time making money.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Where does all the money go that the car companys are fined,? To some one that has done nothing but sit's on their ass and rake's in the money, should it not be divided up between the comsumer's. NHTSA What a forest.
      • 2 Years Ago
      FORD sucks balls.
      • 2 Years Ago
      They better do something about the automatic transmission on the 2013 focus, This is a piece of junk I would must rather get a few mpg less and have a nice smooth ride
      • 2 Years Ago
      I'm a ford tech, crock of ****
        • 2 Years Ago
        how about toyota,they have been getting without much fines.
      • 2 Years Ago
      But Ford still screwed up and tried like hell to cover this up.
      • 1 Year Ago
      $17.3 million? Cool. That will fund about 3 Obama Family vacations.
      • 2 Years Ago
      So how much is Chrysler being fined for delaying a recall on the fire potential in the Jeep. Oh thats right, Chrysler and GM are untouchable because they are under the financial wing of Washington. Ford didn't take a handout so they are on their own.
        Hey Bitch ;)
        • 1 Year Ago
        Get your facts correct, GM and Chrysler did not take a "handout" they borrowed money from the US Government and GM has repaid their debt PLUS interest (not sure about Chrysler).. FORD decided to mortgage itself up to its eyeballs in FOREIGN loans which means that Ford is paying OVERSEAS loans with high interest rates. Funny how GM gets put down for borrowing money from HOME yet when Ford borrows money from foreign banks everyone seems to go blind. Also GM has invested MORE money in US plants (including opening old plants that went vacant) than Chrysler or Ford.
      • 2 Years Ago
      former mechanic and shop owner, most repair shops are fill with fords, they care about quantity not quality. they have a lower resell value , anybody can buy one , drive it a few months and go to the shop for repairs. customers get tired of that and sells them for a lower price, the next buyer will do the same. That is FORD.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Cmon lets hear it ...We sure heard it when Toyota had an issue. But you wont... The big three need all the help they can to compete with Toyota...
        Hey Bitch ;)
        • 1 Year Ago
        To compete with Toyota?? LOL Toyota is a CRAP company. Their quality SUCKS! Low quality cars that they pop out like tin cans. Ford isn't up to par (I can agree to that) but GM makes far better vehicles than Toyota. And I don't think Chrysler can be considered American due to Fiat owning majority :(
      • 1 Year Ago
      How about Nissan with the issuse there having with transmission and Radiators. I have my 2006 Nissan Frontier sitting in my yard becouse Nissan tells me I have no warranty becouse of high miles, but they known about all this and had a class action law suite agains them. So 5130.00 dollars later ..it will sit there for ever.
      • 2 Years Ago
      And the fine is still probably cheaper that doing the proper fix. Which is why the automakers would rather pay the fines than fix the cars in either a quick or acceptable manner.
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