A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the government may not withhold key data on serious car accidents from the public.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia potentially ends years of litigation over the data, and could soon put crash information collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into the hands of journalists, consumer watchdogs and others.
At issue are so-called Early Warning data reported to the safety administration by tire makers, car manufacturers, motorcycle companies and child-seat producers, among others. Under a provision of a 2000 law, such companies must report information on defects, injuries, deaths and damage related to their products.
That law was passed largely in response to a string of rollovers involving Ford Explorers with Firestone tires that killed several hundred people and forced one of the biggest tire recalls ever. The law was intended to help regulators quickly detect potential trends in accidents related to individual products.
Companies began reporting the accident data in late 2003, but none has been publicly released because of lawsuits by industry groups, which argue that the data are proprietary and that the law does not require the government to reveal the information.
Tuesday's decision threw out those arguments, and numerous groups, including Public Citizen, the plaintiff in the case, said they would file requests for the data under the Freedom of Information Act.
The law "was intended to prevent needless deaths and injuries . . . by giving regulators and the public quick access to information manufacturers have about crashes involving their products," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Public availability of information under FOIA is critical to achieving that goal."
The chief opponent to releasing the data has been the Rubber Manufacturers Assn., a tire industry group. The information essentially specifies how often specific products have been involved in certain categories of accidents.
The association has argued that the system works without public access to the data, and in fact the safety administration has issued several tire recalls based on its own analysis of Early Warning reports.
"With this decision, unverified information released by the government can be misinterpreted and thereby unnecessarily alarm motorists about products that are safe," the group said in a statement on the ruling.
The association has also expressed concern that giving personal injury lawyers access to such data could open tire makers up to litigation.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members also must report Early Warning data, has not been such a strident opponent of releasing such information. Rather, it has argued that only data that could cause a company commercial harm should be withheld, including warranty and service information.
Still at issue is whether companies must release all information they report to the government, or only data in accidents that cause property damage, injury or death.
Public Citizen contends that no information should be withheld. But industry groups say they will apply to make some data, such as warranty claims, exempt under a provision of FOIA that protects "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential."