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Bush’s Early Warning Rule Leaves Public in the Dark About Hazards in Vehicles and Tires

Oct. 19, 2007

Bush’s Early Warning Rule Leaves Public in the Dark About Hazards in Vehicles and Tires

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today issued a final rule restricting public access to much of the “early warning” data that the auto and tire industry is required to submit by law to assist in the early identification of motor vehicle safety defects.

The Bush administration is addicted to secrecy. Despite losing in the courts, the administration insists on trying again to produce a rule that will keep us in the dark about potential defects and other safety hazards in the cars we drive.

What this final rule means is that the Bush administration would rather protect the auto and tire industries than the public. The early warning database is intended to give the public exactly what the name indicates: an early warning about potential hazards, so that it can protect itself and hold the administration and industries accountable. If we don’t know of potential dangers, we can’t demand something be done to stop emerging problems from becoming widespread catastrophes.

Congress required NHTSA to create the early warning database in the wake of the Ford-Firestone deaths. In hearings in 2000, legislators were outraged to learn that an insurance investigator had compiled evidence of 20 cases of Ford-Firestone problems and presented it to NHTSA in 1998 – and that the agency then sat on its hands until the death toll had mounted so high that it made headlines. Congress wanted to protect the public’s right to know about developing evidence of safety concerns, so it passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act in 2000.

NHTSA attempted to thwart the will of Congress by issuing a rule in 2003 that would keep early warning data a secret. We challenged that rule in court, and in March 2006, won on the basis that NHTSA had not given the public an adequate opportunity to weigh in on this important decision.

Although NHTSA finally gave the public an opportunity to voice its concerns, the agency refused to listen. NHTSA has just issued a rule that is basically a clone of the 2003 one. The bottom line is that the final rule relies on the implausible claim that release of the information will cause commercial harm to the industry. But keeping this information hidden will, without a doubt, cause harm to the public.

NHTSA does make available information about death, injury and property damage by make and model, but even that disclosure is being threatened by corporate interests. The Rubber Manufacturers of America sued to demand that all early warning data be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Public Citizen fought that argument in a court hearing earlier this month.

It’s easy to see why the administration insists on keeping the information under wraps. Secrecy doesn’t just protect manufacturers, it also lets the administration off the hook for its own incompetence. Insiders suggest that problems with the defective Chinese tires recalled earlier this year could have been detected much sooner – if NHTSA had paid attention to red flags in the early warning database. As long as the agency insists on keeping this information from the public, we will never know for sure.

* Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.