March 28, 2007

U.S. government sued for release of “secret” safety data

Washington, D.C. – Quality Control Systems Corp. has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain “secret data” held by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). R. A. Whitfield, the company’s director, says “the public needs access to the Early Warning Reports collected under the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act to better understand why so many deaths and injuries related to tire failures in the Ford Explorer have continued long after the well-known tire recalls that affected the vehicle.”

The TREAD Act was passed in October 2000, in response to Ford Explorer/Firestone tire-related rollover deaths in the U.S. and Ford’s overseas recalls. TREAD amended federal transportation law to require vehicle and equipment manufacturers to report safety recalls or campaigns on vehicles and components in a foreign country if they also sold substantially similar products in the U.S.

It also mandated NHTSA to create regulations governing quarterly Early Warning Reports (EWR), containing information on property damage and warranty claims, consumer, dealer and field reports, production numbers and deaths and injuries collected by manufacturers, with the intent of using the data to spot defect trends.

When the bill was signed into law, President Bill Clinton directed NHTSA “to implement the information disclosure requirements of the (TREAD) Act in a manner that assures maximum public availability of information.” Quality Control Systems says that after six years of crafting regulations and three years worth of data, the public has been denied access to the information.

Whitfield says that for more than a year, he has been seeking Ford’s EWR death and injury data on Explorers to “better analyze the rise in tire-related Explorer fatalities.” While available fatal crash data frequently do not report vehicle component failures, the TREAD Act requires manufacturers to separately report claims about deaths and injuries related to alleged component failures. Whitfield wants to merge the two sets of information together to get a better picture of the problem.

Since 2000, safety and consumer advocates and manufacturers have fought over what, if any, of the information collected under the TREAD Act is public. The safety community has pushed for maximum accessibility. The Rubber Manufacturers Association has insisted that the TREAD Act specifically exempted EWR data from public view under Exemption 3 of the Freedom of Information Act (which states that information is not public under the Act if Congress specifically passes a law preventing its release), while NHTSA has consistently argued that some EWR information should be kept confidential under the Freedom of Information Act’s Exemption 4, regarding information that may cause competitive harm.

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