Jan. 14, 2005

NHTSA Stance on Early Warning Defect Information Subverts Public Records Law, Would Hamper Highway Safety Efforts

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

Four years ago, in response to the Ford-Firestone crashes that involved defective tires, Congress passed the TREAD Act. That law required select safety data to be gathered by the government and made available to the public. The idea was to enable government investigators to spot potential safety defects quickly with this early warning data and for the motoring public to be alerted to potential problems associated with vehicles they own.

In putting the law into practice, though, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has decided to keep much of this critical data from the public. The information withheld includes warranty claims, production numbers, field reports and even consumer complaints.

As Public Citizen will tell the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today, NHTSA’s secrecy is a stunning perversion of the Freedom of Information Act. That act is supposed to open records and improve government accountability, but the agency is using it to seal records from view. In doing so, NHTSA is bowing to the wishes of the auto industry, which has provided only highly speculative claims about the potential for competitive harm that might result if the data are released.

History has shown that auto manufacturers hide safety defects to avoid the costs of recalling vehicles. Indeed, NHTSA just fined GM $1 million for doing so. NHTSA, meanwhile, has a long history of responding lethargically to safety defects. Outrage over NHTSA’s incompetence in responding to available information on the Ford/Firestone debacle is what prompted Congress passed the TREAD Act.

NHTSA lacks the authority to hide this safety data. The agency also failed to provide adequate notice of its plans and misinterpreted the public records law, which requires the agency to prove that each piece of submitted information should be withheld, rather than presuming it is secret as a category. The information in question belongs to the public because most of it was gathered from the public in the first place.

Public health is at stake. Consumers have a right to know if the vehicle they are driving has potential safety flaws that could injure or kill them. That is why Public Citizen sued NHTSA last March, and why we are fighting to make these critical data public.

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To read Public Citizen's brief, click here.