Wednesday

Super Secret Safety Defect Files Your Govt Won't Tell You About

For nearly three years the major car makers have been shipping millions of pages of secret safety defect data to federal safety regulators that they don't want the public to get hold of, while your tax dollars are being used to organize and keep track of it all. Turns out you get to pay for it, but you don't get to know what's in there.

8 million consumer complaints. 138 million warranty claims. 5 million other reports which detail product malfunctions. It's all part of an "early warning program" set up by congress to prevent another Firestone tire failure type of scandal. And it's all kept secret by government officials at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration --- the same folks who are well paid by your tax dollars to keep the public informed of these very things. Sounds like someone's been sleeping with the enemy to me...

The Firestone mess occurred because of tread separations and other failures that were linked to at least 271 deaths and which resulted in the company recalling 10 million tires. Ford used millions of the tires and ended up redesigning their vehicles and facing huge lawsuit costs while Ford's reputation took a beating. Firestone also took a beating.

There was even a cartoon circulated that jokingly hinted the Concord airplane crash (that happened about that time) might have been the result of Firestone tires failing.

The "big 3" and some German and Japanese manufacturers have argued that this new "defect info" should be kept secret and federal investigators have been trying to do just that, even though it was originally thought that all this data would be available to the public.

The automakers trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, has fought hard to keep the quarterly reports classified as confidential business information so that the public can be kept in the dark. Federal safety officials, often appointed or hired by political appointees, agreed, claiming that if they disclosed the malfunction and failure reports then the car companies might stop telling them about vehicle defects.

Safety critics, including the former director of NHTSA Joan Claybrook, have complained that federal safety officials shouldn't keep the defect data secret and that the public has a right to know. Her organization, Public Citizen, filed suit in 2004 to force the secret records to come to light and last March a federal judge agreed. Meanwhile, the argument goes on.

In case you think the defect data is actually being used, it doesn't look like it. Turns out that safety officials opened about the same number of defect investigations in the five years since Congress created this "early warning system" as they did in the five years before it. That suggests that the data isn't resulting in anything unsual happening at all.

Seems to me that if tax dollars are being used to compile and track defect data, then taxpayers ought to be able to find out what the data says. It'd be a shame to find out later that the carmakers were telling the feds about serious safety defects that could kill, and no one was doing anything to make sure the public was being warned.

You can help. Complain to Congress. You can find your representative, and send them a quick email, by clicking here. Just say "the NHTSA early warning system data should be made public so please do something about it." That will help.

Meantime, if you think you've got a defective car or truck (and safety officials aren't warning any of us about what they are learning from this secret data), contact us. We can help.