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55 Complaints Lead U.S. to Consider Probe of Mercedes for Flaw

October 25, 1987|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

Spurred by owners' complaints, including several from the Los Angeles area, that the Mercedes-Benz auto is vulnerable to runaway acceleration, the U.S. Department of Transportation will soon decide whether to investigate the car for mechanical flaws, a government spokesman said Friday.

A number of Mercedes drivers--including a 30-year-old Northridge insurance agent, a 34-year-old West Los Angeles attorney and a 48-year-old Westlake airline pilot--all swear they had their feet on the brake pedal--not on the gas pedal--when their Mercedes cars recently accelerated out of control when they shifted from "park" into "drive" or "reverse."

Pushed for Probe

Pushing the government to undertake an investigation is a Washington-based watchdog group, the Center for Auto Safety. Last June, the center petitioned the Transportation Department unit responsible for such inquiries--the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration--to initiate a comprehensive investigation into all Mercedes models with gasoline engines and automatic transmissions manufactured between 1984 and 1987.

The consumer group's petition cites the complaints of 55 Mercedes drivers--22 from California and more than half of these from the Los Angeles area--who allege runaway acceleration experiences.

Under federal law, the traffic safety agency, headed by Administrator Diane Steed, must decide soon whether to give a green light to the petition or to reject it, a spokesman for the agency said.

240,000 Cars Affected

If the center's call for an investigation is approved, about 240,000 Mercedes gasoline-powered cars with automatic transmissions, produced between 1984 and 1987 and covering 13 different models, would be affected, according to the auto maker's records.

About 26,000 of these cars are owned by residents in Los Angeles and Orange counties, Mercedes' national public relations spokesman A. B. Shuman said.

The government already has done some homework on the Mercedes issue. Last January, the traffic safety agency investigated allegations that the auto maker's most popular model in this country, the Mercedes 300E, was prone to dangerous, sudden acceleration. The agency found no problems with the car.

Mercedes argued that any acceleration problems stemmed from human--not mechanical--errors.

"The only possible explanation after a detailed mechanical analysis is . . . driver error," said the firm's vice president in charge of product compliance, Karl-Heinz Faber, in a letter last Dec. 1 to the agency.

But the Center for Auto Safety is not satisfied, and charges that the number of complaints about runaway acceleration accidents has grown significantly since last January.

"They've got a serious problem on their hands and they've only made it worse by pointing to the drivers," said Dan Howell of the center's vehicle safety staff. "These accidents are not going to go away."

Found Nothing Wrong

Mercedes' Shuman, in a telephone interview from Mercedes' national headquarters in Montvale, N.J., said the West German auto maker's technicians have tested models that allegedly had the problem--and found nothing.

"We're very serious about fully investigating any (sudden acceleration) reports," he said. "Some people say we're trying to sweep this under the carpet. That's not true at all. And we have not been able to find any defects."

A key test performed by Mercedes technicians, Shuman said, is to floor the accelerator while simultaneously firmly holding down the brake pedal.

"The car will not move," Shuman said. "The brake system is much more powerful than the engine. . . . It's an awesome experience to see the way the engine bogs down. You don't go anywhere. You don't even move an inch."

Shuman called the recent complaints "a phenomenon in the industry now," and added, "We're being swept along with everyone else."

Audis Recalled

Shuman was referring to recent allegations by owners that another European auto, the Audi 5000, has uncontrolled acceleration problems, something the manufacturer denies.

In the case of Audi, NHTSA Administrator Steed announced earlier this month that her agency is still investigating the charges and will study data generated by a recall of 251,000 Audis manufactured between 1978 and 1986.

Beyond the Audi inquiry, NHTSA over the last 15 years has conducted 50 separate investigations of sudden acceleration complaints involving about 20 manufacturers.

For example, in the late 1960s there were similar complaints about some Ford models and, in the 1970s, allegations involving some General Motors cars. Since then, several other auto makers, domestic and foreign, have been accused by consumers of producing autos with defects that made the vehicles susceptible to runaway acceleration.

Solvable Problems

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