Saturday, 13 September 2008 06:15

NHTSA Reveals Early Warning Data on Public Website

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published (online) a database of serious accidents involving possible product or equipment failure. That information, known as Early Warning data, has been in use by NHTSA for five years but is only now available to the public.

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.

The database is accessible at  http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/ewr/qb/index.cfm.

However, the database 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 database is limited to accidents resulting in death, injury or significant property damage.

* The database does not include accidents in which possible equipment or vehicle failure were *not* factors, such as drunk driving, weather, acts of God, etc.

* The data are organized by reporting date, on a quarterly basis dating back to 2003, rather than by vehicle model year. As a result, finding how many 2005 Ford Explorers rolled over involves some pretty heavy database entry.

* The database does not yet include data on tires, baby safety seats or motorcycles. Many manufacturers of those products are petitioning to keep their information out of the database, arguing that it could reveal trade secrets. It was problems with Firestone tires on Ford Explorers that led to the collection of Early Warning data in the first place.

* A source within NHTSA says that the tire makers' confidentiality petitions are likely to be denied, which means that data will likely be available.

* Some companies either are more prone to equipment failure than others, or they have different philosophies of reporting.  For example, Toyota filed 83 death and injury reports in the third quarter of last year. Ford, which at the time had nearly the same market share as Toyota, reported 250.

Industry observers point out that Ferrari has never, in the five years of Early Warning data reporting, filed an accident, injury or property damage report. Aston Martin has filed only one. Porsche, meanwhile, seems to have a consistent problem: Of its 28 injury and death filings, 20 have involved potentially faulty air bags. And in the first quarter of this year, General Motors Corp. reported 38 Chevy Trailblazer injury/death accidents, compared with only 17 GMC Sierra wrecks.

The absence of that material is notable, 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. 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.

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. 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 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.