Early Warning Database and Confidential Business Information

Outraged about auto industry cover-ups and the failure of federal regulators to catch safety defects in Firestone tires and Ford Explorers before hundreds of people were killed, in 2000 Congress enacted a landmark new auto safety bill, the Transportation, Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. At the heart of the TREAD Act is a new authority for regulators to collect timely reports from manufacturers that will provide an "early warning" of a dangerous defect, thereby saving lives.

Congress envisioned a database where members of the public could look to see if they were experiencing a similar problem, to encourage a much quicker fix. Congress thought more accountability for the government was a good idea, too, so that federal investigations couldn’t fester or files get lost while people on the road remained at risk, as happened in the Ford/Firestone case with documents submitted by State Farm and all throughout the 1990s.

While regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have been busy building the database, however, the chief counsel’s office has been busy covering it up, so that only the agency and the industry will know what’s in it. Under a new rule just announced last month, the only tip of the information iceberg that will be permitted to poke above the surface is the data on injuries and deaths. Other quarterly information given to the agency, including consumer complaints to manufacturers, warranty claims, and field reports from dealers, will be kept in the dark.

Consumer groups recently filed a petition opposing the agency’s decision to keep the data secret, challenging the decision under the Freedom of Information Act. They also pointed out that the early warning database will be a terrific quality control program for the whole industry, and that consumers will be likely to provide more feedback on defects with a robust public program.

Secrecy in this case helps out both the agency and the industry, as both might be subject to questions and inquiries from information-empowered consumers who raise questions about defective and dangerous vehicles. But keeping the early warning data a secret plays a dirty trick on Congress and the American driving public, who think that problems that lead to the Ford/Firestone tragedy have been fixed.