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USA Today: NHTSA Hiding Auto Defect Investigations

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NHTSA Keeping Auto Defect Investigations Secret

Jayne O'Donnell at USA Today reported a problem that many know little about: Government safety regulators are hiding many of their investigations behind cloaks of secrecy that protect car makers, but not the public.

[Herman] Evans was in one of at least 15 fatal tire-related crashes last year in Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers, according to news reports. In Evans' crash, the police department did not find fault with the tiremaker or Ford Motor.

But from April 2002 through 2009, there were 375 similar deaths in mostly older-model Explorers and Mountaineers – nearly four times the number that lead to the Ford/Firestone fiasco in 2000, according to an analysis of federal fatality data by the research firm Quality Control Systems. Still, neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] nor Ford Motor Company recalled the vehicles.

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Although Ford is required to tell NHTSA about claims it receives about serious injuries and deaths in its vehicle – and NHTSA can investigate them – information about the probes and many of the injuries and deaths is only available to the public and news media through a Freedom of Information Act request. Even then, manufacturers can request the information they submit to the agency be kept confidential.

O'Donnell identified several other examples undisclosed problems:

  • August 2011 – Hyundai recalled Veracruz and Santa Fe SUVs because of air bags that might not inflate during a crash. Hyundai said it had been contacted by NHTSA about its nearly 8,000 warranty claims and 16 consumer complaints.
  • January 2008 – Evenflo and NHTSA recalled more than 1 million Discovery child car seats, but customers did not know that NHTSA had been testing the child seats for nearly a year because of concerns about possible defects.
  • November 2011 – NHTSA opened a formal investigation of Chevy Volts – though the agency had been testing the cars for six month prior.

"It all goes back to the criticism for years: Where's the methodology? What are the thresholds? No one knows," says Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies. "It's a black art over there."

There is much more in O'Donnell's article at USA Today – I suggest you read it. I have written before about a lawsuit to force NHTSA and the DOT to disclose hidden documents in the Toyota sudden acceleration investigations. NHTSA's actions would indicate that its more beholden to the car manufacturers it's supposed to be policing than the public safety it's supposed to be protecting.

What do you think – should NHTSA be more transparent about its defect investigations? Would you want to know about defect investigations when purchasing a car or a car seat for your child?

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