HIGHWAY SAFETY ADMINISTRATION U.S. blocks release of data on automobile defects

Automakers argue the data would give competitors too much information.
DETROIT -- The federal agency that oversees auto safety has decided -- based largely on arguments from automakers and their Washington, D.C., lobbyists -- that reams of data relating to unsafe automobiles or defective parts will not be available to the public.
Specifically, the government has banned the release of car and truck warranty-claims information, customer complaints and early-warning reports about defects from dealers, automakers and rental-car companies, even if media outlets or other groups push for it under the Freedom of Information Act.
The rule, finalized earlier this year, is a two-paragraph decision buried deep within the Federal Register, which runs hundreds of pages each day. Few, outside automakers, their lobbyists and some public-interest groups are even aware of it.
Growing awareness
But awareness is growing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decision was cited Saturday in a front-page New York Times story as an example of regulatory actions by the Bush Administration to aid business or industry.
One consumer-advocacy group has sued the federal government, arguing this information should be made public and calling the decision a "paternalistic ruling that basically argues consumers are stupid and would be easily misled."
Automakers such as General Motors Corp. and the federal government say this auto-safety data should not be made public for two main reasons -- the information would give competitors too much information and it would be of little use to consumers, who might be overwhelmed or confused by all the data.
"Our view is this data is very sensitive to us and shouldn't be in the public domain," said Chris Preuss, Washington-based spokesman for GM. "There's already a tremendous amount of data out there for consumers."
Consumer-advocacy groups say the automaker arguments puzzle them.
"Apparently the automakers and the government have decided they don't want people to have accurate information because they might get misled, because they can't be trusted with this data," said Scott Nelson, a lawyer for Washington-based consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.
Consumer advocates criticize one automaker argument in particular: that rivals should have to make their own mistakes -- build a flawed product or use a defective part -- and not have the advantage of learning from the mistakes or financial losses of another who has already learned the lesson.
Automakers say it would be unfair if other automakers were able to learn from the mistakes of their competitors.
"It's a shocking argument by the automakers," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and the former head of NHTSA under the Carter administration. "They want their rivals to keep making defective products because of competitive reasons."
GM's Preuss said he could not comment on that particular argument. Eron Shosteck, spokesman for a leading auto trade-association, the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, emphasized automakers and suppliers "simply want to protect proprietary information from their rivals."
NHTSA, which oversees auto safety and made the decision, notes the data had never been public before. Keeping the information private, says NHTSA, is part of the tradeoff of getting good, honest data from automakers.

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