At least 200 owners of 1999 through 2003 Ford Windstar minivans have filed complaints about rear axles breaking, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has never opened a safety investigation.
“When driving my 2002 Ford Windstar minivan on the highway we noticed a loud slamming noise from the rear, causing the vehicle to lose control, swerving to the right shoulder and stalling with the tail still in the middle of the two-lane highway,” wrote one consumer. “The tractor-trailer behind us, who was very alert, nearly missed a rear-end collision with our vehicle.”
The owner of a 2001 model complained, “I was driving down the interstate going 55 m.p.h. in a construction zone. I was in front of a semi-truck. I had my three young kids in the van. The van started feeling funny, and I was looking for a safe place to pull off when the rear axle snapped in two pieces. This caused my van to start to spin. We were almost hit by the semi and then we almost went off the road.”
Most of the axle failures occurred after 100,000 to 150,000 miles, well beyond the factory warranty, said a Ford spokesman, Said Deep. He said there is no safety problem because “the operator retains control of the vehicle at all times” and “the few reports alleging loss of control are inconsistent with how Ford would expect these front-wheel-drive vehicles to respond.”
David Champion, the director of the auto test center for Consumer Reports magazine, said his review of some owner complaints found no reports of crashes, but he considers the rear axle breaking to be “a dangerous event” and “Ford is running a fine line if they do not consider this to be a safety defect.”
Under federal law, an automaker who knows of a safety defect must report it to the agency. But often the agency learns of problems through consumer complaints. These can be filed by telephone, mail or electronically through the N.H.T.S.A. Web site.
There are more than 100 mechanical categories into which consumer complaints can be sorted. The Windstar is a front-wheel-drive and arguably the logical category for a broken rear axle would probably be “suspension, rear axle: nonpowered axle assembly.” However, the Windstar complaints are scattered among about a dozen categories. The most frequent seems to be “rear suspension,” but others include “front suspension” and “unknown.”
Having those complaints in so many categories is “pretty alarming” because it would make it harder to spot a safety problem, said Michael Brownlee, who headed the safety agency’s Office of Defect Investigations from 1987 to 1991 and retired in 1997 as associate administrator for enforcement. Mr. Brownlee said when he was at N.H.T.S.A. workers checked the complaints to make sure they were in the proper category.
An agency spokeswoman said that “each complaint is read as it is received and reviewed for a potential defect trend. As a result, we’re more interested in the content of the complaints than categorization.”
No matter how they are categorized Mr. Brownlee said 200 Windstar complaints is a substantial number and should have prompted an investigation.
John Arout of Staten Island also wonders why there wasn’t an investigation. The rear axle on his 2001 Windstar broke earlier this year. Curious about such a major component failure, he searched the agency’s Web site and found hundreds of reports of broken axles.
“I was shocked, I really was,” he said.
Some consumers complained of having axles break around 80,000 or 100,000 miles. Mr. Arout said his Windstar had gone more than 140,000 miles, so he understands Ford not wanting to pay. But he wonders why Ford wouldn’t warn owners to check the rear axle.
“The thing that is scary, that got me upset, is people driving on the Garden State Parkway, people driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, driving 55 or 60 m.p.h. and having absolutely no idea that there is a potential for this failure,” he said.
He was worried enough that he contacted Representative Michael McMahon, a Democrat who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. Mr. McMahon wrote N.H.T.S.A. Administrator David Strickland urging an investigation because “this defect threatens the safety of parents and children.”
But the agency’s database shows no evidence it ever opened an investigation. In an e-mail message, the agency spokeswoman said, “We are aware of the complaints and continue to monitor the issue.”
Meanwhile the agency itself is being monitored. The inspector general of the Transportation Department is investigating the adequacy of “the actions taken by N.H.T.S.A” involving Toyota and unintended acceleration as well as “the overall process for identifying and investigating safety defects.”
And for Mr. Arout, there’s one other thing that puzzles him. It is a statement from Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, the department under which the agency operates. During a March hearing before a Senate committee investigating Toyota and N.H.T.S.A.’s handling of unintended acceleration, Mr. LaHood praised the agency’s system for reviewing consumer complaints.
“It receives more than 30,000 complaints from consumers every year and reviews every one of those complaints quickly,” he said. “We don’t ignore any of them. We examine them all. We look at all of them very carefully.”
But Mr. Arout said that doesn’t sound like the agency that handled the Windstar axles.
“I don’t know what N.H.T.S.A. he is talking about,” he said.