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Court Rejects Curbs on Release of Crash Data

August 1, 2006

Court Rejects Curbs on Release of Crash Data

Decision Gives Transportation Department Green Light to Release “Early Warning Data” Submitted by Auto and Tire Manufacturers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Information that automobile and tire manufacturers submit to the government about crashes resulting in death, injury and property damage must be released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled. Manufacturers have been required to submit the information, referred to as “early warning data,” under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act since 2003, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has kept the information from the public because tire manufacturers claimed that the TREAD Act forbade its release under FOIA.

Monday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon in a 2004 lawsuit brought by Public Citizen rejected the tire industry’s claim that the data cannot be released under FOIA. Relying on the “plain meaning” of the TREAD Act, the court held that it “does not qualify” as a statutory exception to FOIA’s command that government records be released to the public on request.

Public Citizen’s president, Joan Claybrook, who helped lead the fight for passage of the TREAD Act to prevent tragedies such as the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle, praised the court’s ruling.

“The point of the law was to ensure that the government and public receive the information they need to respond to serious safety problems involving vehicles and tires,” she said. “Only if that information is available can we be sure that the government is doing all it can to respond to warning signals and thereby prevent needless deaths and injuries.”

Ironically, the DOT, which had been withholding the data, agreed with Public Citizen that the tire industry’s claims that the death, injury and property damage data could not be released under FOIA were wrong. Even so, because of the pending lawsuit, the DOT has withheld not only death, injury and property damage data submitted by tire manufacturers but also the same data submitted by automobile and parts manufacturers. 

“The court’s rejection of the tire industry’s claims should clear the way for the immediate release of the death, injury and property damage data,” Public Citizen attorney Scott Nelson said. “Now that the court has ruled, the DOT no longer has an excuse not to release this information, which it has conceded all along is properly subject to release under FOIA.”

Monday’s ruling followed a March 31 ruling in the same case that struck down a DOT regulation that purported to exempt from FOIA certain other categories of early warning data that it considered “commercially sensitive” (involving production numbers, warranty claims, consumer reports, field data, vehicle identification numbers and information about generic tires).

The court held that the regulation was promulgated without proper notice and comment. The effect of that ruling is to prevent the DOT from relying on the regulation to withhold those items of data, although it may still consider on a case-by-case basis whether specific information requested falls within particular exemptions from release under FOIA.

To view the court’s ruling, click here.