Release of Auto Safety Data Is Disputed

Times Staff Writer

After Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorers led to a national outcry over vehicle safety, Congress ordered a watchdog agency to create an early-warning system for automotive defects that could kill or injure people.

Now, with the computerized system expected to be in full operation by spring, industry is urging tight restrictions on release of the data, curbs that safety groups say could gut the reform enacted by Congress in 2000.

The early-warning database is known as ARTEMIS, or Advanced Retrieval (Tires, Equipment, Motor Vehicles) Information System. It is meant to provide a commanding view of emerging safety problems by pulling together closely held industry data on accidents, injuries, deaths, lawsuits, safety complaints and warranty claims. Updated quarterly, it would cover vehicles as well as equipment, even child-safety seats.

Joan Claybrook, president of the Washington-based Public Citizen advocacy group, is among those who say ARTEMIS data should be available to all. It could be posted on the Internet, for example. That way, a motorist whose brakes gave out would be able to access the manufacturer’s latest information on similar problems with the same model vehicle.


But industry officials say some of the data, particularly warranty claims, could give competitors an unfair peek at a company’s strengths and weaknesses. And they worry that raw information could be used to disparage a particular product.

“This data will be used to make comparative claims of superior quality, reliability and durability that are misleading and inaccurate,” Lyndon Lie, General Motors Corp.'s director of product investigations, told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The information will not allow for valid comparisons between manufacturers, he said, because one company may report an engine computer problem as engine-related and another manufacturer could report the same problem as electrical.

NHTSA is expected to make an initial decision on the scope of disclosure shortly. The exact timing is uncertain, but agency staff already are being trained to use the system. Manufacturers are scheduled to begin submitting data in the spring. The final policy on disclosing information is subject to review and changes by the White House.

When then-President Clinton signed the auto safety legislation, he pledged “maximum public availability” of information. But it has been left to the Bush administration to implement the system, and disclosure of auto safety data is shaping up as a major test of its regulatory policy. The administration has broadly acknowledged business concerns that some data collected by the government should not be released.

The auto safety law, known as the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation, or TREAD, Act, was passed with strong bipartisan support. A congressional investigation had found that manufacturers failed to warn safety officials at NHTSA of a pattern of problems with certain Firestone tires. Bridgestone/Firestone recalled the tires in August 2000, but the tire maker and Ford had received reports of trouble well before.

NHTSA Ignored Tip

NHTSA itself was accused of letting consumers down. The agency failed to act on a 1998 tip from State Farm Insurance Cos., which had documented the tire failure trend from its customer claims. Ultimately, more than 270 people died and at least 800 were injured in crashes blamed on failed Firestone tires.

The surest way to prevent the recurrence of a similar debacle would be to release the data broadly, in the eyes of Public Citizen’s Claybrook. “Early warning is the heart and soul of the TREAD Act,” she said. Congress intended “to end the silence surrounding defect information, not to reinvent the culture of cloaked secrecy.”

But the industry is concerned that quarterly Internet updates could turn into open season for plaintiffs’ lawyers and other critics. And because the majority of safety recalls are voluntarily initiated by manufacturers, the companies contend that unbridled disclosure of sensitive information could create an adversarial atmosphere that undermines safety.

“NHTSA’s ability to obtain information cooperatively from the private sector is directly related to the agency’s ability to protect that information from public disclosure,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers pointedly noted in a filing with the agency.

A NHTSA spokesman declined to comment.

Automakers Hear First

The agency acknowledges that it now has much less information on safety problems than do automakers. Many consumers are unaware that they can report a problem to government investigators. But most customers do contact the manufacturer with their complaints. Companies carefully track customer complaints, making these files a rich source of data.

The new database would let NHTSA tap the information resources of the industry, rather than continue to rely on the government’s file of consumer complaints.

But the automakers’ alliance has asked the agency to guard information “not customarily disclosed to the public by the submitting manufacturer,” or data that “would harm the competitive position of the submitting manufacturer.” It recommends that NHTSA release early-warning data only after it has decided to open an investigation into a potentially defective product. That approach is in line with the way the agency has traditionally operated.

When safety investigators suspect a problem, they request company data on accidents, injuries, deaths and consumer complaints. As the investigation moves forward, NHTSA places the company information in a public file.

Yet critics say the traditional approach broke down in the Firestone case, and there is no guarantee it will be foolproof in the future.

“That is where we were before the scandal of the summer of 2000, and why would anyone want to go back to that situation?” asked Randy Whitfield, a leading auto safety researcher based in Maryland. “If what we lived through has any lesson to teach, it’s that not all the wisdom that exists about motor vehicle problems resides in NHTSA. There should be more pairs of eyes looking.”

Congress did not provide explicit guidance on what early-warning information should be released to the public, but left that determination to the Transportation Department.

That means Congress did not intend for the information to be automatically released, industry officials maintain.

“We have taken a moderate position,” said Robert Strassburger, vice president for safety with the the automakers’ alliance. “There is certainly information that will be submitted to NHTSA that should be made public, but conversely, there is other information that is proprietary.” Once the agency opens an investigation, “then information relating to that particular inquiry should be made available to the public,” he added.

Congress felt that a balance had to be struck, according to Mike Waldron, a spokesman for Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), one of the TREAD Act’s main authors. That balance must decidedly improve the current lot of consumers, Waldron said, though some statistical information may remain confidential.

“Where life-and-death issues are concerned ... the consumer has a right to know,” said Waldron. “When we wrote our bill, our intent was that information such as the congressional investigation uncovered would have been disclosed earlier. There would have been a mechanism for getting the tires replaced, and that would have saved the lives of hundreds.”