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new 'early warning' rule would still keep auto defects secret

Automakers have long been the only ones "in the know" when dangerous defects begin to inflict harm on American motorists. But the industry has routinely kept the public and federal regulators in the dark, even though companies collect elaborate data on safety hazards. As long ago as 1971, P.E. Benton, then-vice president of the customer service division of Ford Motor Co., bragged that Ford was "usually ... well aware of product problems long before we begin to receive significant numbers of complaints directly from owners or early product problem reports from the field organization. Several of our programs have for some time provided us with fast, reliable information on product problems."

The public and federal lawmakers were outraged over auto industry cover-ups and the failure of federal regulators to catch safety defects in Firestone tires and Ford Explorers before 184 people were killed and more than 700 were injured in rollover crashes (primarily in Ford Explorers caused by separating tread on Firestone tires). In response, Congress passed a landmark auto safety bill, the Transportation, Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. At the heart of the TREAD Act is new authority for regulators to collect timely reports from manufacturers that will provide an "early warning" of a dangerous defect and save lives.

Congress envisioned a publicly accessible database where consumers could look to see if they were experiencing similar auto problems, to encourage quicker fixes. Congress thought more accountability for the government was a good idea, too, so that federal investigations couldn’t fester or files become lost while people on the road remained at risk, as happened in the Ford/Firestone case with documents submitted by State Farm Insurance Co. all throughout the 1990s.

While regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have been busy building the database, the chief counsel’s office has been busy covering it up, so that only the agency and the industry will know what’s in it. Under a rule announced in July 2003, the only information that will be publicly available is the data on injuries and deaths. Quarterly information submitted by automakers to the agency, including consumer complaints to manufacturers, warranty claims and field reports from dealers, will be kept secret.

Consumer groups filed a petition opposing the agency’s decision to keep the data secret, challenging the decision under the Freedom of Information Act. They also pointed out that the early warning database will be a terrific quality control program for the whole industry, and that consumers will be likely to provide more feedback on defects with a robust public program.

Secrecy benefits both the agency and the industry, as both might be subject to questions and inquiries from consumers who raise questions about defective and dangerous vehicles. But keeping the early warning data a secret plays a dirty trick on Congress and the American driving public, who think that problems that led to the Ford/Firestone tragedy have been fixed.

For more information on the early warning database and confidential business information, click here.

Read Public Citizen’s comments to NHTSA on Rulemaking on Early Warning Reporting Procedures.

Read Public Citizen’s comments to NHTSA on rules governing the confidential business information under 49 CFR Part 512.

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