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Though motorists depend on automobile makers to manufacture safe vehicles, mass production brings inevitable mistakes. But the Ford Motor Co.'s massive recall of 8.5 million vehicles - the second largest in industry history - is scary in its scope and implications.

Ford is voluntarily, if belatedly, recalling 8.5 million vehicles, all 1988 to 1993 Ford models - except the Taurus, Probe and Mercury Sable. The problem: a poorly designed ignition switch that can ignite in fire, even with the engine off.Compounding the design flaw is Ford's delay in doing anything about it. Ford knew about the mysterious fire problem with its switches as far back as 1990, and federal safety regulators within the U.S. National Highway Safety Administration looked into the matter in 1992.

With little pressure from federal safety regulators, there was no move to recall the vehicles. But in Canada last fall, Ford recalled about a quarter of a million cars and trucks because of switch problems.

The huge recall stands as an embarrassment both to Ford and the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration.

Both were asleep at the switch.