July 22, 2008
Court Upholds Public Access to Crash Data
Decision Says ‘Early Warning Data’ Submitted by Auto and Tire Manufacturers Is Subject to Freedom of Information Act
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Information that automobile and tire manufacturers submit to the government about crashes resulting in death, injury and property damage is subject to release to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled today. The decision in the case of Public Citizen v. Peters vindicated Public Citizen’s efforts to promote public disclosure of the data and rejected the position of the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) that it is exempt from FOIA’s requirements.
Since 2003, manufacturers have been required to submit the information, referred to as “early warning data,” under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has been keeping the information secret because the RMA appealed a lower court ruling that FOIA applied to the data. Today’s ruling should put an end to the association’s efforts and pave the way for the agency to begin releasing early warning data in response to FOIA requests.
The court of appeals based its ruling on what it called the “plain language of the TREAD Act,” which “means what it says” – and it doesn’t say that early warning data is exempt from FOIA. The court’s ruling followed the analysis of the law set forth by Public Citizen in its legal briefs and in oral arguments in the case.
Public Citizen’s president, Joan Claybrook, whose advocacy was instrumental in passing the TREAD Act, hailed the court’s decision.
“The TREAD Act was intended to prevent needless deaths and injuries, like those in the Ford/Firestone tire tragedy, by giving regulators and the public quick access to information manufacturers have about crashes involving their products,” she said. “Public availability of information under FOIA is critical to achieving that goal.”
In the court of appeals, the Transportation Department agreed with Public Citizen that the early warning data is not exempt from FOIA’s requirements, but the existence of the case has had the practical effect of keeping the information from the public. In light of the court of appeals’ opinion, it is expected that the Transportation Department will now comply with FOIA’s requirements and begin processing requests for, and releasing, early warning data to the public unless it fits within a specific FOIA exemption.
“The D.C. Circuit’s opinion eliminates any shred of legal support for the RMA’s attempts to keep early warning data under wraps,” said Public Citizen attorney Scott Nelson, who argued the case. “Now that the court has confirmed that the TREAD Act means what it says, it is time for the government to follow the law and comply with its obligations under FOIA.”
Public Citizen is submitting a FOIA request for release of all the early warning information gathered by the Transportation Department to date.
To view the court’s ruling, go to https://www.citizen.org/sites/default/files/06-5304-1128839.pdf.