A 2015 Ford F-150

The federal government is launching a preliminary investigation into reports that a seat belt component has led to unusual fires in newer models of the Ford F-150 pickup truck.

The investigation, recently posted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website, covers 1.4 million trucks from the 2015 through 2018 model years. Consumers have reported that fires have ignited in the pillar that houses the seat-belt pretensioners, during or immediately after a crash.

The pretensioner acts in a split second to tighten the seat belt and better hold its occupant in place. That helps airbags work as intended and reduces the likelihood of passenger injury. Pretensioners, like airbags, often use an explosive that’s triggered by crash forces.  

Pretensioners in F-150s are made by one of two auto suppliers, ZF TRW or Takata. 

In three cases, the fire became intense enough that the truck was “totally destroyed,” NHTSA said. The safety agency opened the investigation after only five consumer complaints were filed with the agency, which is far fewer than average. But the agency has opened investigations in cases with a small number of complaints when the alleged defect seems particularly dangerous.

F-150 owners should not stop using their seat belts, though, a CR expert urges. “In each of these reported cases, the fire occurred after a crash event, and in 4 out of 5 cases, the airbags were deployed. The F-150 seat belt and the pretensioner system had already performed correctly and protected the occupant,” said Emily Thomas, Ph.D., automotive safety engineer at Consumer Reports. “It’s imperative that occupants continue to effectively protect themselves with their seat belt.” 

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In a July 7 incident in Grand Rapids, Mich., a consumer reported to NHTSA that a deer had run into the driver’s side of that F-150. A passenger removing a purse from the truck’s back seat noticed a fire at the bottom of one of the pillars between the front and rear door, the location of the seat-belt housing (the complaint did not indicate if the fire was on the driver’s side or passenger’s side). “The truck went up in complete flames in a matter of minutes and is a complete loss,” according to the complaint filed with NHTSA.

Another consumer reported to NHTSA that their truck was a complete loss after a fire that started in the passenger seat. The complaint did not specify if it was the front or rear passenger seat. The consumer said that an insurance-company investigation concluded that the fire, which started after a right-side impact, was caused “mainly due to manufacturing defects with the airbag and electrical system.” 

“We take the safety of our customers very seriously,” said Ford spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt. “We are investigating the matter and will cooperate with the agency, as we always do.”

A preliminary evaluation is the first step in NHTSA’s investigation process. Automakers often recall vehicles during this stage if they come to agreement with federal investigators about the issue. If NHTSA isn’t satisfied with an automaker’s response and becomes convinced there’s evidence of a safety defect, it can upgrade the probe to an Engineering Analysis.