WASHINGTON - Federal safety officials are intensifying an investigation of inadvertent airbag deployments in some Mitsubishi-built cars even though the officials failed to determine whether one killed an Illinois woman in February 1998.
Besides that incident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it knows of 28 reports of inadvertent deployments in 1994 Mitsubishi Mirages, Dodge and Plymouth Colts and Eagle Summits. The deployments injured 11 people and led to two crashes. About 50,000 of the cars are on the road.
In announcing its decision to upgrade the case from a preliminary evaluation to an engineering analysis, the agency said its review was unable to determine the cause of Kerri Valecek's death. Valecek, 25, of Streamwood, Ill., was found dead in her 1994 Mirage in 1998. The car had gone over a curb and through a small snowbank. There was little damage to the vehicle, but the airbag had deployed.
In another investigation, NHTSA is trying for the first time to determine if a side airbag system is defective.
The agency said it has received two complaints of deployments in 1999 BMW 3-series models even though there were no crashes. One person was reported injured. The number of vehicles affected has not been determined.
In its monthly compilation of defect investigations, NHTSA said it is intensifying its investigation of antilock brake systems on 1998 and 1999 Isuzu Rodeos and Amigos and Honda Passports.
The agency and the manufacturers have recorded 246 complaints about malfunctions. They included 34 crashes involving 13 injuries. About 86,000 of the 1998 vehicles are on the road. The 1999 vehicle population is not yet known.
The complaints include reports of reduced braking function, illuminated ABS warning lights and brake pedals that went down to the floorboards.
A third case upgraded to an engineering analysis grew out of complaints about engine fires in 1992 and 1993 Lincoln Town Cars. The agency and Ford Motor Co. have collected 111 complaints about the problem. About 223,000 of the cars are in service.
NHTSA closed two investigations after manufacturers agreed to do safety recalls. The cases had stemmed from complaints about seat back failures in 1994 Saturns and about fuel splashing back from filler pipes on 1998-99 Audi A6 sedans and wagons.
In an unusual new case, NHTSA said it found high-mounted stop lightbulbs were burned out in a 1997 Ford E-250 van that had been involved in a reported sudden acceleration incident. The agency said it is opening a preliminary investigation to determine how burned-out bulbs might be linked to a shift-lock mechanism malfunction. NHTSA said it does not know yet which years or models might be affected.
Here are other new defect investigations:
1999 FORD F-150
Problem: Spare tire sidewall wears against underside of pickup bed.
Vehicle population: 700,000.
1996 CHEVROLET BLAZER, GMC JIMMY, OLDSMOBILE BRAVADA, ALL WITH FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE
Problem: Upper control arm ball joint fails; suspension collapses.
Vehicle population: 274,000.