Ford gives teen driver's folks more cause for worry

April 25, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

It's a great time to be alive, if they let you. The sun's bullied aside the last remnants of winter, the songbirds are out in the yard, and in the next few days Sara, the youngest in my household, goes for her driver's license.

She's 16. It's an age when kids tend to feel invulnerable, maybe because they don't read the newspapers enough. Sara's got a brand new second-hand car waiting for her, courtesy of her maternal grandparents, with only 35,000 miles on it. But the grandparents, voracious readers of the news, called the other day with second thoughts about letting her drive it.

The newspapers all say the car could burst into flames simply because it's in the mood. It's a 1989 Ford Escort LX. Ford's having quite a little problem these days with ignition switches installed in 23 million cars and trucks built from 1984 to 1993, including this particular model.

In the United States the company's gotten 827 reports of steering column fires. In Canada, it's gotten 300 more reports. Ford's response? In Canada, they've recalled 248,000 cars. In the United States? Ford is "studying the situation."

"See, here's my problem with that," I explain to Francine Romine. She's Ford's spokesperson assigned specifically to this issue. I've been trying to reach her since the news surfaced about the ignition switches and the fires, but she's never gotten back to me.

"I know," she says. "I haven't been at my desk in four days. I've been at meetings since we had this ..."

"Problem with cars catching fire?" I say.

...situation," she says.

"See, here's my problem with that," I say. "I have a 16-year-old who's about to begin driving, and we have this car for her that we now find we're a little afraid to let her drive. And she's nervous about it. And we can't possibly be the only ones with this concern."

"Yes," says Romine. "This continues to be under investigation."

"But in Canada," I point out, "they've recalled these cars after only 300 complaints, and in the United States, there are 800 complaints and you're not recalling them?"

In Canada, she explains, there are currently only 248,000 such cars on the road. In the United States, she says, it's about 4 million. A recall would be among the largest in history and could cost enormous money. Thus, they're investigating.

"For how long?" I ask. Because I'm thinking that, while they're investigating, there's the risk of more cars spontaneously catching fire.

"I cannot possibly speculate," says Romine.

"Days? Weeks? Months?"

"In the next ... soon ... I can't possibly say," she declares. "I have nothing scheduled. We'll have a statement when the investigation's finished. In Canada, one-third of the 300 cases turned out not to be related to this ignition switch."

In the United States, she says, all 827 cases "will have to be checked," and therefore, there is no timetable. She suggests something that sounds pretty reasonable. This ignition switch that seems to be causing so much trouble -- why not have it replaced at a Ford dealership? The cost? Maybe $90, she says.

So off we go to a friendly Ford dealer. Yes, he says, people have been coming in with worries about their cars catching fire. Yes, he says, he could certainly replace this questionable ignition switch for us. For $85, he says.

"Sounds reasonable."

"But there's a problem," he says.

"What's that?"

"We'd just replace it with the same model of ignition switch," he says. "So, what's the point?"

The point is: It's a great time to be 16, and the school year's coming to a finish, and there's a brand new second-hand car waiting for you.

It's the perfect, balmy time of year to begin driving a car, if you're 16. If you're the parents of a 16-year-old, naturally it's never the perfect time. Parents tend to worry more than the 16-year-olds. We tend to remember our own driving experiences at that age.

The night after I first got my license, a mere 35 years ago, my father handed me the keys to his car. He and my mother stood at the front door of our house and watched as I got behind the wheel and turned the ignition. I put the car into drive. I drove the car straight into the car parked directly in front of me.

In other words, I didn't even get the car out of the parking space before I had my first accident.

No damage was done to either car. I backed up, pulled out and drove off. But as I faded from my parents' sight, I knew they were still standing at the front door and thinking, We're never going to see that boy again.

It's the worry in every parent's head. Driving's dangerous enough under the best circumstances. When you put a kid into a brand of car with a history of spontaneous fires, though, the anxiety level leaps.

Ford's "studying" the matter? Ford installed these ignition switches for a decade while hundreds of vehicles caught fire. There are 4 million people driving their cars now and wondering if they're taking a risk. It's a great time to be alive, if they let you.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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