U.S. keeping crash data secret

Officials backtrack on safety disclosure amid suit by tire makers


Federal auto safety officials are backtracking on a pledge to give consumers access to detailed data on which cars and trucks may be linked to deaths, injuries and property damage. The reason: Tire makers have sued to prevent its release.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it will hold off indefinitely on releasing the information while the lawsuit by the country's largest tire makers is argued and decided, which could take months, if not years. Consumer advocates have been clamoring for the release of such data since the 2000 Ford-Firestone rollover debacle.

Auto experts say these data on vehicle deaths, injuries, property damage and what specific parts may have caused the problem would be of great interest to car and truck shoppers, who often make their buying decisions based on a vehicle's safety records and reliability.

"If you own a car or truck and have a problem with it, or are shopping for a new car or truck, you'd want to see if there were a number of deaths or injuries with that vehicle. It's really disheartening to see NHTSA opting for secrecy in the area of vehicle safety," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

Until last week, the government said it had made or would make available to the public the new vehicle safety data, including details on the make, model and year of a vehicle in which someone died or was injured, and what vehicle part or system may have caused the accident.

But following a Freedom of Information Act request by the Free Press, NHTSA last week acknowledged this informationwas not available -- as it had said earlier. It also acknowledged it would not be made public until it deals with the lawsuit filed in June by the Rubber Manufacturers Association, a group that represents tire makers such as Bridgestone, Goodyear and Continental.

"We had intended to make all of that information public, the claims data on deaths and property damage, but then we got sued. Because of the lawsuits filed against us, we're holding off on disclosing any further information until we see the outcome of this," said Rae Tyson, NHTSA spokesman. "We're waiting until we get further guidance from the courts."

Consumer-interest groups and vehicle-safety advocates, many of whom already felt like NHTSA was withholding too much vehicle safety data, were outraged at NHTSA's reversal.

"I think the more the government decides to keep data under lock and key, the more they put the public at risk," said Greenberg. "The whole idea should be to provide the public with advanced warning about vehicle hazards, which is exactly what didn't happen in the Ford-Firestone situation."

NHTSA began receiving this new early-warning vehicle-safety data in December 2003 as part of the TREAD Act, a much-publicized law passed in 2000 in response to the rollovers of Ford Motor Co. Explorers equipped with certain Firestone tires. U.S. officials have linked 271 deaths to wrecks involving tread separation of Bridgestone Corp.'s Firestone tires. Most were on Explorers.

Automakers and tire makers fought to keep all of that new vehicle safety data out of the public eye, arguing as long as NHTSA saw it, that was all that mattered. Consumer-interest groups, pushed to make all the data public, saying it was valuable to auto consumers and auto-safety groups.

Often unspoken was the concern by business interests that the data would be used by trial lawyers to sue automakers or tire makers. Businesses also complained the public would be misled by the data.

NHTSA came down in the middle. In a two-paragraph ruling buried deep within the Federal Register this spring, the agency decided to make public the data on deaths, injuries and property damage -- while keeping secret data about car and truck warranty claims, customer complaints and early-warning defect reports from auto dealers.

NHTSA defended the decision to keep some information confidential by noting it was disclosing the other data on deaths, injuries and property damage -- the same data it is now keeping secret. TREAD has resulted so far in at least one small piece of new data being made public: warranty recalls in foreign countries.

The consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen sued NHTSA in April, seeking release of all the data. Public Citizen's lawyer said he was puzzled by the NHTSA reversal, while the Rubber Manufacturers Association applauded it.

"The agency knows there is broad interest in this safety data, the data on deaths and property damage. They themselves concluded that in the rule-making process," said Scott Nelson, a lawyer for Public Citizen, based in Washington, D.C. "Now the vehicle-safety information the agency said would be there for the public is being held hostage for months or years while both sides debate and argue the case."

Nelson said NHTSA caved in to the tire makers' lawsuit without requiring them to win a temporary restraining order to prevent release of the safety data.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association -- which filed its suit in June insisting none of the data should be made public --applauded the NHTSA decision, saying the data on deaths, injuries and property damage wouldn't be helpful to consumers.

"Our position is this early-warning data shouldn't be made public, even if the information is accurate. That information is just for the trained federal safety regulators to use," said association spokesman Dan Zielinski. "Our feeling is the data should remain confidential unless NHTSA forms an investigation. There's already plenty of information out there for the public."

He also expressed a typical concern of business groups -- that trial lawyers would use the safety data to file lawsuits against them.

"We wouldn't want a situation where this data was abused. The trial lawyers would find this data interesting to pore through. They are clever people and can make anything sound unsafe, even when it's not," said Zielinski.

Changing positions
The NHTSA decision is an abrupt about-face for the agency in charge of vehicle safety. In an Oct. 27, 2000, memo, NHTSA said it disagreed with the tire makers and other business groups who wanted to prohibit disclosure of all new data coming to NHTSA under the TREAD act.

NHTSA spokesman Tyson said the agency feels like it's being squeezed between one lawsuit by Public Citizen demanding more public disclosure and one from the tire makers demanding less.

"We are caught in the middle, so the courts will have to decide. In the meantime, we are not going to make public any information until we hear from the courts," he said.

The tire makers' lawsuit is not supported by automakers or their trade association, the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers. The alliance has taken the position that NHTSA's original stance -- releasing just the data on vehicle-related deaths, injuries and property damage -- is the proper way to go.

"We have not sought to expand the scope of protection of information beyond the current NHTSA rule," said Erika Jones, lawyer for the Alliance.

NHTSA has yet to officially respond to the Free Press FOIA requests of Aug. 24, which sought access to both the data that was supposed to be public as well as that which the agency had previously decided to keep confidential. On Sept. 22, NHTSA chief counsel Jacqueline Glassman sent an e-mail to the Free Press seeking a 10-day extension on the requests. She also said NHTSA was "considering issues relating to requests for confidential treatment pending the litigation."