An Unknown Recall Can Lead to a Coast Guard Rescue

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
an unknown recall can lead to a coast guard rescue

It’s getting harder to ignore automotive safety recalls, but it’s easy for one to go unnoticed if it’s handed down after the owner buys a vehicle used.

While the circumstances surrounding the purchase of a vehicle involved in last weekend’s incident in Lake St. Clair aren’t clear, one thing is: the owner had no knowledge of a nearly two-year-old power steering recall. On the surface (so to speak), this seems to be the culprit behind the saga of the USS Ford Flex.

Vehicle mishaps that drivers walks away from rarely makes headlines, but it’s a different story when occupants swim away from them.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the 16-year-old male driver of a 2011 Ford Flex didn’t abandon ship after his vehicle’s steering “locked” while attempting to maneuver around a vehicle turning just ahead of him. A bad situation, for sure, but made much worse by the immediate proximity of a lake.

The teen, Nolan Mullins, was driving north in the left lane of Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Shores when the car ahead slowed for the turn. When Mullins passed it on the right, the SUV apparently liked the new direction and shook off any attempts to change course.

“I tried shaking the wheel, and I couldn’t get it to move,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “It wouldn’t move.”

The teen claims to have been driving 30 miles per hour, which could be true, thought the speed limit on that stretch is 35 mph and people like the left lane for a reason. (Not that that has anything to do with the apparent glitch.)

The Ford Flex isn’t a lightweight, and braking is never good on grassy inclines, so the Blue Oval brick ended up in the drink. Like classic Volkswagens of yore, the SUV didn’t sink immediately, leaving Mullins time to get out. Unfortunately, a combination of residual momentum and environmental factors — there was an offshore wind, it seems — prompted the vehicle to flex its nautical muscles.

Rather than swim for it, Mullins camped out on the mercifully flat roof as the vehicle drifted away from land. It was about 40 yards offshore — and adding distance — when phone calls mobilized the local Coast Guard detachment. Plucked from the watery Flex by boat, Mullins suffered only mild hypothermia. The Flex, however, probably won’t live to sail another day.

While a cause of the incident hasn’t been determined, Mullins’ observations point to power steering failure. In such an event, “shaking” the wheel isn’t going to do anything, but applying steady force in the direction you want to go stands a good chance of yielding better results. The vehicle’s owner, Lisa Mullins, said she was unaware of an existing recall for just such an issue.

Back in June 2015, Ford recalled 400,000 vehicles, including the 2011 Flex, to address a slew of complaints related to the sudden failure of the vehicles’ power steering assist. The automaker attributes the failures to a steering motor sensor fault.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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  • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Feb 27, 2017

    Occam's razor tells me that the kid wasn't used to no power assist and he lost control of the vehicle. I suspect someone's lawyer found out about the recall and is exploiting the fact that almost nobody drives a car or truck without power steering so they don't know that at road speeds little power assist is needed. There is a big difference between losing power assist and the steering locking up. Even in a vehicle as heavy as a Flex, at 30 mph steeing effort should be fairly minimal even without power assist. The electric assist may fail but the steering column is still connected to the rack & pinion. There was a time when you could buy a full size American sedan without power steering. Admittedly cars are heavier today but you should still be able to control a car if the power steering unit fails. I suppose it's possible that an electric assist might have fault modes you wouldn't find with a hydraulic assist. If any of you engineers out there could explain how a failed electric assist sensor could result in the steering locking, that'd be appreciated.

    • See 5 previous
    • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Feb 28, 2017

      @DenverMike I've had that feeling a couple times, DenverMike. The first was as a teenager. We had a "loaded" 4-door Chevette with power brakes among our pool of vehicles. My father regularly picked up other inexpensive vehicles for short-term use before resale, and he happened to pick up a more basic 2-door Chevette at the same time. I took that for a drive one day and thought it had lost its brakes the first time I approached a stop sign. The force I was used to applying on any previous vehicle provided almost no braking effect. But I braked harder and it did stop. I then played around and found that it was possible to lock the brakes, but took a lot of strength to do so. I mentioned this to my father and he concluded that they were unsafe. He installed the brake booster off a junkyard unit before selling it. The second time was driving a Formula Mazda race car at Bondurant. The first time we were set free on-track after a couple of warm up laps, my brakes were still quite cold and I almost thought they weren't going to stop me at the end of a straight. There was seemingly no pedal travel at all once they engaged, but I pushed harder and the car did slow. I learned to love those brakes. Once the brakes were engaged, they responded proportionally to varying levels of force without the pedal moving, thus providing a stable platform for heel-toeing. No perceptible flex or mushiness at all. I immediately realized why it had been so hard to get consistent rev-matching on the Corvettes, with their pedals that not only changed position under different braking force, but also sunk lower as they grew hotter throughout each track session.

  • JimZ JimZ on Feb 28, 2017

    the initial reports said the vehicle had a tire go flat, which would make much more sense. a novice driver experiences a sudden hard pull and doesn't know how to react. the road he was on (which I live near) has a fairly small distance between the northbound lanes and the lake. right front tire goes down, car pulls hard to the right, n00b can't figure out what to do in time to stop the car from going over the bank. but on the Internet, every day is "Jump To Conclusions" Day, so it must have been the open recall.

  • Damon Thomas Adding to the POSITIVES... It's a pretty fun car to mod
  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.
  • Lorenzo In Massachusetts, they used to require an inspection every 6 months, checking your brake lights, turn signals, horn, and headlight alignment, for two bucks.Now I get an "inspection" every two years in California, and all they check is the smog. MAYBE they notice the tire tread, squeaky brakes, or steering when they drive it into the bay, but all they check is the smog equipment and tailpipe emissions.For all they would know, the headlights, horn, and turn signals might not work, and the car has a "speed wobble" at 45 mph. AFAIK, they don't even check EVs.
  • Not Tire shop mechanic tugging on my wheel after I complained of grinding noise didn’t catch that the ball joint was failing. Subsequently failed to prevent the catastrophic failure of the ball joint and separation of the steering knuckle from the car! I’ve never lived in a state that required annual inspection, but can’t say that having the requirement has any bearing on improving safety given my experience with mechanics…
  • Mike978 Wow 700 days even with the recent car shortages.