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Public Citizen Challanges: Demands More Open Info On Car and Part Problems

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WASHINGTON, March 22, 2004; John Crawley writing for Reuters reported that a national consumer group asserted on Monday the Bush administration has wrongly blocked public access to important auto safety data, including information about warranty claims and consumer complaints.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court, Public Citizen challenged a 2003 Transportation Department regulation that restricts Freedom of Information Act requests for some auto industry documents held by the government.

As part of landmark auto safety legislation prompted by the Firestone tire debacle, Congress ordered the industry in 2000 to regularly turn over safety data to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Lawmakers did not require the information be kept confidential.

The Firestone saga involved deadly blowouts and rollovers of mainly Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles. Firestone, a unit of Japan's Bridgestone Corp., eventually recalled millions of tires.

The disclosure order is designed to give regulators, who did not pick up on the Firestone tire and rollover problems until they became the subject of lawsuits and media reports, a much better chance of identifying defect trends early.

NHTSA, in fact, credited the early warning data with helping it to flag a potential defect that led to another large recall of a different Firestone tire model last month.

The Transportation Department approved a rule last July permitting it to withhold data on warranty claims, child restraint systems, some consumer complaints, tires and auto dealer reports. The agency said confidentiality was necessary to prevent "substantial competitive harm" to manufacturers.

But Public Citizen said the government did not prove that releasing the data would hurt the industry. "Similar information gathered by the DOT in defect investigations has been routinely disclosed in the past," the group said.

A NHTSA spokesman declined to comment on the suit, but noted the confidential data represents a small part of the information that auto makers, equipment manufacturers and other companies must submit. Consumers have access through the NHTSA Web site to details on crashes, injuries, deaths, and foreign recalls.

But Public Citizen attorney Amanda Frost said the administration had pushed through a significant exemption to the Freedom of Information Act on critical data. "The agency has failed to show how disclosure would harm manufacturers, but this exemption would surely harm consumers," Frost said.