More Bush Administration Secrecy: Keeping the Public in the Dark About Vehicle Safety

Oct. 31, 2006

More Bush Administration Secrecy: Keeping the Public in the Dark About Vehicle Safety

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

After losing in the court, the Bush administration has decided to try yet again to issue a rule that will keep the public in the dark about potential defects and other safety hazards in the cars they drive.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today issued a proposed rule restricting public access to much of the “early warning data” submitted by the auto and tire industry under the 2000 Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation Act (TREAD Act) when there is evidence that may assist in the early identification of motor vehicle safety defects.

Congress required NHTSA to create the early warning database in the wake of the Ford-Firestone tragedies. In hearings in 2000, Congress was outraged to learn that an insurance investigator had compiled 20 cases of evidence of the 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.

NHTSA attempted to thwart the will of Congress in a 2002 rule 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.

The proposed rule issued today is the same as that earlier rule. NHTSA is now complying with the obligation to provide public notice and opportunity to comment, but the rule has the same substantive flaws as the old rule, which we intend to point out in our comments, which are due on January 2, 2007. The bottom line is that the proposed rule relies on implausible claims that release of the information will cause commercial harm to the industry, and it restricts access to information needed by the public for its own safety and to help monitor NHTSA’s performance in responding to safety issues raised by the early warning data.

Although we are disappointed by the terms of the proposed rule, we are pleased that NHTSA has chosen to comply with its notice-and-comment obligations rather than causing further delay by appealing the court’s ruling. Unfortunately, another party to the lawsuit, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, has appealed on a separate issue, claiming that the TREAD Act forbids any release of early warning data (a position even NHTSA does not agree with). Until that appeal is resolved, it seems likely that NHTSA will continue to withhold access to all early warning data, even though NHTSA’s rules require it to release early warning data concerning deaths, injuries and property damage. We hope that RMA’s appeal will be quickly rejected so that NHTSA can begin complying with at least part of its obligation to make the early warning data of potential safety defects available to the public.

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

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