Gagging the Government on Auto Safety

Don’t Quote NHTSA on That…What’s happening at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)? Depending upon whom you ask you might get no answer at all—or at least no answer for use on the record. NHTSA seems to have pulled the proverbial shade on any kind of transparent, open door communication policy between the press and its staff, leaving crucially important safety information unavailable for on-the-record publication and consumers in the dark about agency dealings.

Perhaps an example is in order.  Given a situation like the I-35 bridge collapse catastrophe, if a reporter seeks on-the-record information, two options apparently exist: contact the office of NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason (trained in law, not engineering), or pursue the questionably ambiguous process of obtaining special permission to speak on the record with a real expert, after what can only presumably be a nip/tuck job by higher-ups of all the expert’s statements. Forget contacting the now inappropriately titled communication staff—the policy applies to them, too. The other “choice” involves use of information without official attribution; a process frowned upon by responsible publications around the country.

This policy makes an apparent mockery of NHTSA’s “Commitment to You”

of “providing the most accurate and complete information available to

its customers, the American traveling public, in a helpful and

courteous fashion.” “Accurate and complete” information now apparently

comes just from Nason, and “helpful and courteous” includes a long

series of run-arounds and redirects.

Not-So-Easy Access This backwards approach to information sharing

appears to be NHTSA’s newest, but not first, step toward complete

secrecy. Unfortunately NHTSA also proved itself

communication-challenged when managing its transportation research library.

Easy public access to the library is crucial, as it holds literally

millions of pages of reports, investigations and statistics involving

the evolution of auto safety, relied upon for auto safety policymaking.

But NHTSA took the “out with the old” approach, failing to plan for

a reference room when engineering a 2006 headquarters move. Faced with

opposition, NHTSA now has allotted space, but indicated that if there

is insufficient room documents will moved to a different location. So

much for responsible recordkeeping.

So who wants to know? In a word, consumers—and they have the right

under the law. Despite seemingly clear legal mandates, NHTSA still

fails to make available an important series of crash statistics known

as Early Warning Record

(EWR) data. Under the TREAD Act, NHTSA is required to obtain quarterly

EWR data from automakers. Congress intended this information be made

publicly available to foster informed auto purchasers. NHTSA, however

seems bent on doing everything to prevent public EWR access —

apparently NHTSA would rather keep this threatening-to-industry

information confidential between itself and the industry big boys.

The data is there, we just can’t see it. Courts ultimately told

NHTSA that, contrary to its vehement arguments, EWR information is not

exempt from disclosure under FOIA. NHTSA, however, still refuses to

make it publicly available, as the aforementioned court decision is on

appeal for the separate issue of whether or not the TREAD Act itself

inexplicably both mandates and forbids the release of some early

warning data, a position with which NHTSA itself has stated it does not

agree. In contrast to NHTSA’s “Integrity”

policy, which would achieve “transparency, balance, and fairness in

agency policy and rulemaking activities, considering the views of all

interested parties” its failure to disclose shows that insofar as NHTSA

is concerned, the public may not matter much.