Washington — The U.S. government is investigating complaints about brake failures on Ford Motor Co.’s F-150 pickup, the best-selling vehicle in the nation.

About 420,000 pickups with 3.5-liter, six-cylinder engines from the 2013 and 2014 model years could be prone to brake failures, according to documents posted Friday on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.

The agency says it has 33 complaints about the alleged problem, including some from drivers who reported experiencing “complete” brake failures, even with pedals floored. Four drivers attributed crashes to the brake problem, although NHTSA said there were no injuries.

“The complaints allege symptoms of brake pedal going to the floor with complete loss of brake effectiveness, brake warning lamp illumination, and/or low or empty master cylinder reservoir fluid level with no visible leakage,” the agency said in a notice of its investigation.

“Several complaints allege repair facilities diagnosed the problem as brake fluid leaking from the master cylinder to the brake booster.”

The highway safety agency said Friday it is launching the investigation because the pace of complaints has accelerated in recent months. The agency reported that it received 31 complaints from F-150 drivers came in the past year, with 20 of them coming in the past seven months.

One driver in Brentwood, California, complained of brakes failing “without warning” while they were driving at about 5 miles per hour.

“The contact depressed the brake pedal all the way to the floor and had to place the vehicle in park to stop,” the complaint said. “The vehicle was towed to the dealer where it was diagnosed that the master cylinder and booster pump needed to be replaced.”

Ford’s F-Series pickup is the top-selling vehicle in the U.S, and the F-150 accounts for a majority of those sales. Ford sold 780,354 of the F-series trucks last year and the company has already moved 112,487 additional pickups in the first two months of this year, according to sales figures that have been released by the company.

The highway safety agency said the vehicles that are included in the investigation represent 36 percent of the total number of F-150s sold between 2013 and 2014.

Ford faces fines up to $35 million if it fails to comply with NHTSA’s request for documents on the brake problems by April 20.

“The Vehicle Safety Act… provides for civil penalties of up to $7,000 per violation per day, with a maximum of $35,000,000 for a related series of daily violations,” said Jeffery Quandt, NHTSA chief of vehicle control and defects investigation, in a letter to Ford.

“This includes failing to respond completely, accurately, and in a timely manner to ODI information requests,” he continued.

Ford said Friday it would work with federal regulators to get to the bottom of the F-150 brake concerns.

“We take the safety of our customers very seriously, and we will cooperate with NHTSA on this investigation, as we always do,” the company said in a statement.

The investigation comes at time when federal regulators have been under pressure from Congress to step up their oversight of the U.S. auto industry after a series of recalls have raised questions about car safety.

NHTSA has been under fire recently for failing to call for a total recall of vehicles that have air bags made by Japanese parts manufacturer Takata, which been used in Fords as well as 13 other automakers; 24 million cars have been recalled in the U.S. Ten deaths have been linked to to defective bags.

NHSTA Administrator Mark Rosekind has declared the recent string of high-profile auto problems “the era of Big Recall,” which he has said is a problem for both federal regulators and the auto industry.

“Record civil penalties are not a metric of success,” he said in a speech at this year’s Automotive News World Congress in Detroit. “Folks, if we’re levying a big fine, it means there has been a safety crisis.

“Americans have been put at risk. Too often, it means American lives have been lost. And NHTSA’s job is to save those lives, every one of them. NHTSA is truly successful not when we catch safety violations and wrongdoing and hand down penalties, but when we work together with industry to prevent that kind of crisis from ever occurring.”

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

@Keith_Laing

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