Despite three reported deaths related to the defect and pressure from auto safety advocates, the agency is not pursuing any civil fines against the automakers for failing to recall the SUVs years earlier.
"It's a total miscarriage of justice,” said Clarence Ditlow, auto safety advocate and Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.
The federal investigation began after the ABC15 Investigators exposed a defect involving damaged speed control cables, stuck throttle complaints and a series of accidents.
In January 2012, 17-year-old Saige Bloom died after her 2002 Ford Escape accelerated out of control in Payson, Ariz.
That launched our five-month investigation exposing a pattern of accidents, complaints, lawsuits and two other deaths stemming from the same defect in the same model year SUVs around the country.
Less than two weeks after NHTSA opened its investigation, Ford and Mazda announced a major recall of more than 700,000 2001-2004 model year Ford Escapes and 2001-2008 Mazda Tributes equipped with 3.0L V6 engines and speed control for potential stuck throttles.
But some safety experts said the recall from Ford came seven years too late.
"Ford knew about the defect in 2004 and changed the vehicle in 2005,” Ditlow said.
Asked why the agency isn’t pursuing penalties against Ford, NHTSA said in a statement:
Safety remains NHTSA's primary focus and we urge consumers impacted by this and any other recall to have their vehicles promptly serviced. We have closed our defect investigation. NHTSA will continue to monitor any future issues involving a stuck throttle or unintended acceleration in these vehicles to ensure that there are no additional safety risks that warrant further action.
"Saige Bloom died in January 2012 because there wasn't a recall of the 2001 to 2004 Escapes,” Ditlow said. “There's simply no way around that fact."
In a statement, Ford told the ABC15 Investigators:
We took swift action as soon as we completed our full technical investigation into the cause of the issue and determined that a recall was in the best interest of our customers.
NHTSA said it has no reason to challenge the recall.
ADDITIONAL STATEMENT FROM FORD MOTOR COMPANY:
While we were aware of the tragic death of Saige Bloom, we did not have the opportunity to investigate the vehicle involved in that accident until shortly before we announced the voluntary safety recall. And our internal investigation was not solely based on that one incident. We had a volume of data to review and analyze in order to ensure our investigation was thorough and properly implemented.