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New Proposal to Limit Public Access to Vehicle Safety Data Bad for Consumers

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Shopping for a new car and want to compare details about past vehicle warranty-related problems before making your final buying decision? Do you want to look at available accident-related safety reports and determine which make and model of vehicle performed safest? Well according to a recent article in the San Fransisco Chronicle, a new proposal from the National Highway Safety Administration will prevent you from accessing safety-related information, consumer complaints, warranty payments and automobile dealer field reports all of which will affect automobile safety.

According to the Chronicle article:

In 2000, Congress passed the Transportation, Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act to address regulators’ failure to spot defects in Firestone tires that were linked to numerous deaths.

Under the act, vehicle and parts manufacturers are required to report all consumer complaints, warranty payments and dealers’ field reports in the event of an injury or death involving a potentially defective product.

A recent government proposal would limit acess to this information:

While the data will still go to government officials, rule changes sought by the auto industry and backed by the Bush administration would deem information like consumer complaints and warranty payments “trade secrets” and thus prevent the public from gaining access.

As a result of an era of secrecy, we have in the past seen defective and dangerous tires with a propensity for tread separation at high speeds. We have seen poorly designed SUV’s with rollover propsensities. We have seen cars with a propensity for explosion based upon the location of the gas tanks. Problem product disclosures would have provided an early warning system to vehicle manufacturers to fix, repair and prevent such defective products quickly and safely. Unfortunately, as the Bush administration now proposes, automobile manufacturers will be forced to disclose information about vehicle product defects and other problems to the government; however, nobody will have access to this information. A useful early warning system originally envisioned by Congress will simply not exist under this proposal. In my opinion, such draconian efforts to limit access to information flies in the face of the rights of consumers, discourages product safety and does nothing further to advance the interests of product safety. The American Association of Justice urged the National Highway Safety Administration to withdraw any rules suggesting that consumer complaints are “trade secrets” and therefore exempt from public access. According to the American Association of Justice,

AAJ noted that the proposed rule changes violate both the Freedom of Information Act and its subsequent common law interpretations. Specifically, the new rules decrease public access to records (including documents that previously had been readily available to the public) and foster administrative secrecy for the benefit of the auto industry.

The Association stated further:

“These unwarranted rule changes by the federal agency charged with ensuring the public’s safety allow the automobile industry to hide information about the safety of their vehicles and ultimately evade responsibility for negligence,” said Jon Haber, CEO of the American Association for Justice.

I could not agree more with this criticism of limitations on access to public records particularly when access could enhance automobile safety. What do you think?