Faced with opposing court actions from the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) and Public Citizen, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stepped back indefinitely on its promise to make ``early warning'' tire and auto data publicly available.
``We've got lawsuits coming at us from both sides,'' a NHTSA spokesman said. ``We've got Public Citizen claiming we're releasing too little, and the (tire) manufacturers claiming we're releasing too much. We're backing off because the court could go in either direction.''
NHTSA issued a final rule in July 2003, requiring tire, auto and parts makers to submit to the agency any data that might demonstrate the possibility of a product defect. At that time, it granted confidential status to production, warranty and consumer complaint data and field reports because their release could be prejudicial or anti-competitive against the submitting companies.
This position pleased neither Public Citizen, which argued for the public availability of all data, nor the RMA, which argued that the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act specifically made all early warning data confidential except in the case of an official defect investigation.
A revised rule issued last April granted further confidentiality to tire manufacturers' common green tire lists, which cover basic tire constructions for various tire models and brands. But fatality, injury and property damage data should be available to the public, the agency ruled.
Public Citizen filed suit against NHTSA in March before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The consumer group asked for immediate release of all early warning data, claiming the agency exceeded its authority in giving confidential status to information not specifically exempted from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In June, the RMA intervened and filed a cross-claim in the Public Citizen case. The association petitioned the court to deny Public Citizen's motion and grant confidentiality to all early warning data.
NHTSA's refusal to grant confidentiality, the RMA argued, violated not only the FOIA and the TREAD Act, but also the Administrative Procedure Act and the Data Quality Act, ``which requires that information disseminated by agencies to the public be objective and possess utility.''
Both groups called the agency's actions ``arbitrary and capricious''-the standard legal phrase for when a government body allegedly exceeds its authority.
NHTSA revealed its plans to withhold release of early warning data in response to an FOIA request from the Detroit Free Press. The spokesman said this is by no means a sign that the early warning rule isn't working.
``People need to keep in mind that the primary purpose of this regulation was to give defect investigators an investigative tool, and that goal has been met,'' he said.