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Crash stats under guard

A U.S. highway agency collects facts from fatal accidents, like location and weather. Should the public be able to see?

March 07, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

You might call it morbid fascination, the way people slow down to take a long look at accidents. But it is also cautionary and informative.

In the same way, a lot of motorists might like to know about fatal accidents at dangerous intersections and hazardous freeway segments they use.

Such information is readily available, but the federal government won't let the public have it. It is part of a bigger problem with what critics call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's culture of secrecy.

The safety administration has routinely blocked access to all kinds of important safety information, including potential safety defects reported by the auto industry to the agency, according to safety advocates.

"The public has a right to know," said Joan Claybrook, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen and a former chief of the safety administration. "After all, the public is the one getting killed and injured."

To be fair, the agency gets sued from all sides, including by the auto industry trying to prevent disclosure of data. Federal privacy laws also limit what the agency can disclose. Nonetheless, some of the agency's actions seem dubious. Consider the issue of where fatal accidents occur.

R.A. Whitworth, whose Maryland-based company conducts highway safety research for attorneys, insurance companies and even government agencies, discovered a few years ago that federal regulators were collecting the global coordinates of fatal accidents and linking them to its database, known as the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS. The database is one of the most important kept by the federal government.

Almost by happenstance, Whitworth discovered on the agency's website in 2004 the geographic coordinates of fatal accidents. He immediately saw the value: He could create maps of accidents, providing insights into where they were occurring on any given day and under what conditions.

He downloaded the data to his computer, but a few days later it was gone from the website. He called the agency and explained that the data had disappeared and he would like the agency to repost it. Officials called the posting a mistake and said he should erase it from his own computer, he recalled.

Whitworth waited until the following year, to see if the agency would again mistakenly post the data. This time, it did not. So he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency in September 2005. The request was denied.

The rejection letter said that "the disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Exactly how a set of coordinates would invade a dead person's privacy was not made clear. Police routinely release the names of fatal-accident victims.

What's more, the FARS database already contains the highway number and mileage marker of fatal accidents, but having the exact Earth coordinates allows the data to be analyzed more systematically. FARS contains lots of data, such as vehicle types, blood alcohol levels and weather conditions.

"If you accept their position, then there is nothing in the FARS database that could not be withheld from the public," Whitworth said. "That's what really worries me."

Whitworth appealed the decision in November 2005, but never heard back from the agency.

What did he learn from the 2004 data that he downloaded? Among other things, he discovered an alarming number of crashes of sport utility vehicles occurred on hot days on Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, as Southern Californians headed to Las Vegas. That interested him, because he is doing research for attorneys suing Ford Motor Co. for rollovers involving Explorers equipped with Firestone tires.

"Is there a disconnect between where the money is needed to curb fatal accidents and where it is actually going?" Whitworth wonders. "I don't know, but I am not satisfied with the answers I am getting."

Another huge issue for safety advocates involves the early warning system for vehicle safety defects. After the problem linked to Explorers' tires surfaced, Congress passed a law called the TREAD Act, requiring that manufacturers vastly increase defect reporting to NHTSA, including allegations of defects that involve fatal accidents.

The agency was going to make those reports public, but then pulled back at the last minute when it issued its formal rule, said Claybrook. Public Citizen sued, but so did automakers trying to restrict the release of data. NHTSA officials say until the suits are resolved, they aren't going to make the data public. Other consumer groups gripe that the agency refuses to disclose a lot of other information it receives on its safety hotline.

"They share the information with the auto industry, but not the public," said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We have a terrible time getting information. It is always a struggle."

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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