March 22, 2004

Bush Administration Violates Law in Attempt to Keep Auto Safety Information from the Public

DOT Rule on Early Warning Data Should Be Declared Unenforceable, Public Citizen Tells Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Bush administration acted illegally in moving to keep certain automobile safety information from the public, Public Citizen said in a lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today. The consumer advocacy group asked the court to find disclosure rules recently issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) unenforceable.

The rules relate to the implementation of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, enacted in 2000 by Congress in the wake of the Ford/Firestone tragedy. Before that, manufacturers had been accumulating data on problems with tire tread separation and rollover-prone Ford Explorers but had kept the data secret. Federal regulators failed to catch the defects before hundreds of people were killed in crashes. The TREAD Act seeks to prevent a recurrence of that tragedy by requiring manufacturers to give the DOT reports and data that could give an "early warning" about safety defects, including warranty claim information, auto dealer reports, consumer complaints, and data on child restraint systems and tires.

Normally, such data are available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law granting public access to most records held by federal agencies. However, in July 2003, the DOT issued a rule exempting the early warning data from disclosure because that could "cause substantial competitive harm" to manufacturers, an allowable FOIA exemption.

But the DOT did not provide any proof as to why disclosure of such information, which manufacturers have yet to provide, would cause competitive harm. Similar information gathered by the DOT in defect investigations has been routinely disclosed in the past. Further, the rule is worded so strongly that the information would automatically be prohibited from disclosure.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency within DOT responsible for the database, is in the early stages collecting data from manufacturers for the early warning database even as the DOT moves to limit public access. Auto safety groups filed a petition with the agency in July 2003, asking it to reconsider the rule change, but have not received a response.

In the complaint filed today, Public Citizen asks the court to strike down the regulations as a violation of FOIA and beyond the DOT’s authority. Public Citizen also told the court that the government violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires that the public be given an opportunity to review and comment on proposed rule changes. In April 2002, the DOT issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that did not give the public adequate notice that the agency was proposing to exempt basic safety data from disclosure, and the public did not have the opportunity to comment on the changes.

"It is truly outrageous that the Bush administration would move to seal such essential auto safety information from the public," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "Public access to this type of data could mean the detection of problems like the deadly Ford Explorer/Firestone tire combination and could save lives."

Added Amanda Frost, an attorney with Public Citizen who wrote the complaint, "The DOT is trying to slip a vast exemption to the Freedom of Information Act in the back door. The agency has failed to show how disclosure would harm manufacturers, but this exemption would surely harm consumers."

Click here to view a copy of Public Citizen’s complaint.

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