An Unknown Recall Can Lead to a Coast Guard Rescue

2011 Ford Flex

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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