Recall takes tykes off the road Waiting list is long to repair popular Wheels toys

November 30, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Taylor Brocato was happily using a bed for a trampoline when the phone rang in his Crofton home. Good news. His Suzuki Quad Racer, in the shop for the weekend, was fixed.

"I think he jumped a little higher when he heard that," said Taylor's mother, Cindy Brocato. "He likes his little Quad Racer. He's asked about it."

Taylor, you see, is 2 1/2 years old. Last week, his beloved Power Wheels motorcycle, declared a fire hazard a month ago as part of one of the largest toy recalls ever, was among the first to be proclaimed street-legal again.

Service centers across the country, including two in the Baltimore area, are beginning to repair millions of the battery-powered Power Wheels vehicles recalled last month after reports that electrical systems had overheated and caused fires in some vehicles. Toy manufacturer Fisher-Price urged parents to remove the batteries and keep their children from using the vehicles until the repairs are made.

For parents forced to separate their children from a favorite toy, the recall has been a trying process.

They have fought through jammed phone lines and overloaded Web sites to arrange for repairs at service centers that are few and far between. Then they were told to be patient. Fisher-Price had to build and test the parts, and so far only a small number have been manufactured and shipped to the service outlets.

Fisher-Price hopes to have about half the repairs done by early January, a company spokeswoman said. Both Taylor Rental in Glen Burnie, where Taylor's toy was fixed, and Duran Service in Towson, the other authorized service center in greater Baltimore, have waiting lists of more than 2,000 names.

"We've been involved in a number of recalls," said Ray Duran, whose shop also services products from Panasonic, Black & Decker, Mr. Coffee and dozens of other companies. "This is the biggest one of all."

As many as 10 million of the toy vehicles have been recalled. The vehicles sell for up to $300 under dozens of models such as Jeep Wrangler, Barbie Jeep and a construction vehicle known as Big Jake. They are designed for children ages 2 to 7.

Fisher-Price says it is spending $27 million on the repairs, which are free to Power Wheels owners. In full-page newspaper ads, the company is assuring holiday shoppers that Power Wheel vehicles on toy store shelves have the new safety features.

The recall is the largest ever among off-the-shelf, retail toys, said Nychelle Fleming, spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Its scope is exceeded only by recalls on some fast-food giveaways and breakfast cereal toys, she said.

Another reason the recall gained attention is because the toys are, well, very cool. Ask any child. With Power Wheels, little ones engage the great childhood fantasy of driving a car or motorcycle. Just like Mom and Dad.

"His father has a Harley," said Cindy Brocato, Taylor's mother. "This is as close as he's going to get for awhile."

When she heard about the recall, Brocato called quickly enough to be No. 2 on the list at Taylor Rental. The company's owner, Leroy Dixon, said he was so swamped with calls that he was forced to install a separate phone line to handle them.

"For four days, the business was all but shut down," Dixon said. "I couldn't get a regular customer to call me because the phone lines were all lit up with the Power Wheels stuff. I had people calling in a panic saying they were afraid their house was going to burn down. We're talking about people who literally thought they had a bomb in their house, with the battery."

The recall came after about 700 reports of electrical components failing from overheating, causing about 150 fires and minor burns to nine children. Karen Reynolds of Elkton said her son, then 3, was riding his Power Wheels Jeep Wrangler when it caught fire in September 1997.

"It wasn't just smoldering and melting. It was an actual fire," she said. She said her son jumped out of the vehicle before being burned.

She wrote a letter to Fisher-Price, asking: "Have you had this happen before?" The only reply she got from the company, Reynolds said, was an offer to replace the vehicle for free. She's on a waiting list to have the replacement vehicle repaired at a Wilmington, Del., service center.

Blamed on tampering

Fisher-Price insists that the vehicles are not defective, and that the "vast majority" of the problems arose after customers tampered with fuses in the batteries or altered the wiring.

Federal regulators disagree, saying their testing showed a faulty wiring system that could cause connectors to melt and catch fire. They also said wiring problems sometimes cause the toy to fail to stop properly.

"The reason for the recall doesn't have anything to do with consumer tampering," Fleming said.

Fleming said the commission is investigating whether Fisher-Price reported problems to regulators in a timely manner. The commission said the fires date to the early 1990s, but it received its first report from an outside fire investigator in 1996.

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