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New Rule on Crash Data Will Still Keep Public in the Dark

August 21, 2006

New Rule on Crash Data Will Still Keep Public in the Dark

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

A new rule issued today for vehicle devices that record critical information about passenger vehicle crashes does not go far enough, and the result is that the public will remain in the dark about unsafe vehicles and the sources of crash injuries.

The final rule issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to place event data recorders (EDRs) in some passenger vehicles can provide real-world crash data that should be collected and analyzed to increase understanding of crash causation and injury sources, and improve tracking of defect trends and emergency responses to crashes. 

But NHTSA’s rule has no protocol to ensure that government can get it. If the government has access to the data, it would ensure the confidentiality and non-identification of any individuals, mitigating privacy concerns. In addition, most people don’t know that the EDRs record only the few seconds before and after a crash.

The rule requires EDRs to record certain kinds of key information. But it standardizes only some of those data elements, and fails to require automakers to install EDRs in all vehicles. Currently, 64 percent of vehicles have the device. For EDR data to be comprehensive and reflect actual crashes, 100 percent of vehicles should have them. NHTSA also exempts vehicles over 8,500 pounds, which includes most large SUVs, further diminishing the benefits of the rule. NHTSA should mandate EDR installation in all vehicles up to 10,000 pounds and expand the number of data elements – especially those data elements critical for safety analysis and emergency response – that EDRs must record.

The rule also fails to ensure ready retrieval of EDR data. It does not standardize a downloading protocol so that information may be easily retrieved and used for safety analysis. It requires only that EDRs survive crash tests conducted at a top speed of 35 mph. However, in 2002, nearly 75 percent of vehicles with reported speeds involved in fatal crashes were traveling at speeds greater than 35 mph, and nearly 50 percent were traveling at speeds greater than 50 mph.

Regarding notice to consumers, NHTSA’s rule should not just require that manufacturers state in a vehicles owner’s manual that it is equipped with an EDR but should also require a window sticker to ensure that people are actually informed.

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