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Gagging the Government on Auto Safety

Don’t Quote NHTSA on That…What’s happening at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)? Depending upon whom you ask you might get no answer at all—or at least no answer for use on the record. NHTSA seems to have pulled the proverbial shade on any kind of transparent, open door communication policy between the press and its staff, leaving crucially important safety information unavailable for on-the-record publication and consumers in the dark about agency dealings.

Perhaps an example is in order.  Given a situation like the I-35 bridge collapse catastrophe, if a reporter seeks on-the-record information, two options apparently exist: contact the office of NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason (trained in law, not engineering), or pursue the questionably ambiguous process of obtaining special permission to speak on the record with a real expert, after what can only presumably be a nip/tuck job by higher-ups of all the expert’s statements. Forget contacting the now inappropriately titled communication staff—the policy applies to them, too. The other “choice” involves use of information without official attribution; a process frowned upon by responsible publications around the country.

This policy makes an apparent mockery of NHTSA’s “Commitment to You” of “providing the most accurate and complete information available to its customers, the American traveling public, in a helpful and courteous fashion.” “Accurate and complete” information now apparently comes just from Nason, and “helpful and courteous” includes a long series of run-arounds and redirects.

Not-So-Easy Access This backwards approach to information sharing appears to be NHTSA’s newest, but not first, step toward complete secrecy. Unfortunately NHTSA also proved itself communication-challenged when managing its transportation research library. Easy public access to the library is crucial, as it holds literally millions of pages of reports, investigations and statistics involving the evolution of auto safety, relied upon for auto safety policymaking.

But NHTSA took the “out with the old” approach, failing to plan for a reference room when engineering a 2006 headquarters move. Faced with opposition, NHTSA now has allotted space, but indicated that if there is insufficient room documents will moved to a different location. So much for responsible recordkeeping.

So who wants to know? In a word, consumers—and they have the right under the law. Despite seemingly clear legal mandates, NHTSA still fails to make available an important series of crash statistics known as Early Warning Record (EWR) data. Under the TREAD Act, NHTSA is required to obtain quarterly EWR data from automakers. Congress intended this information be made publicly available to foster informed auto purchasers. NHTSA, however seems bent on doing everything to prevent public EWR access — apparently NHTSA would rather keep this threatening-to-industry information confidential between itself and the industry big boys.

The data is there, we just can’t see it. Courts ultimately told NHTSA that, contrary to its vehement arguments, EWR information is not exempt from disclosure under FOIA. NHTSA, however, still refuses to make it publicly available, as the aforementioned court decision is on appeal for the separate issue of whether or not the TREAD Act itself inexplicably both mandates and forbids the release of some early warning data, a position with which NHTSA itself has stated it does not agree. In contrast to NHTSA’s “Integrity” policy, which would achieve “transparency, balance, and fairness in agency policy and rulemaking activities, considering the views of all interested parties” its failure to disclose shows that insofar as NHTSA is concerned, the public may not matter much.

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