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NHTSA investigating Ford F-150 seat belt fires, may recall 1.4 million trucks

Bruce Brown
Ford is recalling 2 million of its popular F-150 trucks after a fault was found in the seat belt pretensioner system. The automaker said the fault had caused at least 17 "smoke or fire" incidents in North America.

Responding to complaints from five owners, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) opened an investigation of an alleged defect in Ford F-150 seatbelt pretensioners.

According to the NHTSA, the owners claimed fires started in the trucks’ B pillars following crashes that caused the vehicles’ seatbelt pretensioners to be activated. Three of the trucks were totaled by the fires, but the other two self-extinguished, according to the Vehicle Owner Questionnaires submitted to the ODI. No fatalities or injuries were reported.

The NHTSA’s official problem description reads, “During a crash, deployment of the seatbelt pretensioner may result in a fire inside the B pillar at the seatbelt floor board anchor.”

Pretensioners lock seatbelts in place during a crash. Pyrotechnic pretensioners, which much be replaced after they are activated just like airbags, use small explosions to tighten loose seatbelts to protect passengers during crashes in addition to locking the belts in place. Not all pretensioners use pyrotechnics; others types use mechanical or electrical locking mechanisms. Pyrotechnic pretensioners are the most sophisticated because they both tighten and lock the belts.

A vehicle’s B pillar is the vertical support structure on each side behind the front seat windows.

The trucks involved in the ODI reports were 2015-2018 Ford F-150 Supercrew pickup trucks. The NHTSA estimated there are approximately 1,425,000 trucks with Supercrew-style cabs from those model years in the U.S.

The seatbelt pretensioners in the trucks were manufactured by either ZF TRW or — and most readers will know this name — Takata. Takata filed for bankruptcy in 2017 after more than 100 million airbags supplied by the company were recalled worldwide by 19 automakers. Takata airbags were linked to 14 deaths and hundreds of injuries, due to metal pieces that burst into vehicle interiors when the airbag inflators exploded. At the time the NHTSA said recalling the 40 million vehicles in the country with Takata airbags was, “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history.”

Ford’s F-series trucks have been the best selling trucks in America for more than 40 years and the best-selling vehicle of any type for more than 30 years. Ford sold almost 2.5 million F-series trucks from 2015 through 2017 and more than 500,000 trucks through July 2018, with five months to go. If all F-series trucks in the four years were to be recalled, the total number of vehicles involved would be close to 3.5 million.

If the ODI determines a recall is necessary due to a defect in the pretensioners, the number of vehicles would likely grow quickly to include other automakers that use pretensioners from the same manufacturers.