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Car-crash list missing crucial data

Manufacturers' claims keep NHTSA from disclosing information on tires, child seats and motorcycles.

September 11, 2008|Ken Bensinger | Times Staff Writer

Long-awaited information on serious vehicle accidents was released to the public Wednesday by the federal government, but crucial data on tires and child-safety seats was withheld.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the so-called Early Warning data -- information on specific products, automobiles and equipment linked to accidents involving death, injury or property damage -- must be published. The decision in effect ended five years of industry challenges to the release of such information.

However, the database on the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, www.safercar.gov "> www.safercar.gov , contains only information from automobile manufacturers. It lacks data from tire makers, child-restraint producers and motorcycle companies, even though they are all compelled by law to report such information to the NHTSA.

The absence of that material is glaring, because it was a series of fatal rollovers involving Firestone tires that led to the passage of the reporting law eight years ago and the creation of the database.

Rae Tyson, spokesman for the NHTSA, said tire makers and other companies have attempted to block publication of their data by claiming it contains trade secrets.

"We have a backlog of over 100 confidentiality claims, the majority of which are from tire makers," Tyson said, adding that child-seat manufacturers have also filed such petitions.

The agency is reviewing the claims on an individual basis, Tyson said, and would immediately post data in cases where claims are denied. The agency has collected such data since 2003 but has not made it public because of industry challenges.

Tire makers, led by the Rubber Manufacturers Assn., an industry group, had opposed creation of the database.

Auto manufacturers unilaterally agreed to waive their right to confidentiality, according to spokesmen for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Assn. of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represent the major car companies.

"We didn't have any problem with any of the data being published," said Kim Custer, spokesman for the international group that represents Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., among others.

As it stands, the Early Warning database is categorized by make and accident type and is reported in quarterly batches from the third quarter of 2003 through the first quarter of this year.

The compendium, for example, lists an August 2006 accident involving a 2003 Ford Expedition that rolled over, killing one and injuring four, as possibly caused by the tires. But it does not offer any details about the size or brand of the tires.

"I'm not surprised that the manufacturers of these tires are continuing to resist publication," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, which sued for release of the data.

The 2000 disclosure law was passed after accidents involving Ford Explorers with Firestone tires killed hundreds of people, prompting one of the largest tire recalls in history. Under the law, companies must report information on potential defects as well as injuries, deaths and damage related to their products. They must also submit data on warranty repairs, consumer complaints and field visits to accident sites by manufacturers.

The NHTSA has used Early Warning data to launch scores of investigations into potentially serious equipment problems, but it has restricted it to internal use and has never made the data available to the public or members of the media investigating safety trends.

Industry groups say the data do not necessarily prove an equipment failure.

"Early Warning reports and traditional data do not, by themselves, confirm a safety-related issue is present; rather, they indicate the potential existence of one that should be further investigated," said Wade Newton of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

July's court ruling was restricted to data on accidents resulting in injury, death and property damage. It did not call for the release of warranty, complaint and field visit data.

Claybrook said the group would push for release of that information as well.

"If we have to file a lawsuit, we'll file a lawsuit," she said. "It takes a lot of persistence to get the government to do its job."

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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