"Early warning" auto safety data made public

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Documents and figures about fatalities, injuries and property damage from U.S. automotive accidents were posted online on Wednesday by the government, acting under a court order and following years of pressure from consumer and safety groups to make the information public.

U.S. and foreign automakers started reporting “early warning” statistics about individual accidents and other incidents to regulators five years ago by order of Congress, and the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has now posted thousands of them on its website.

However, volumes of additional data from tire companies and other suppliers remain under wraps pending completion of a regulatory review of whether to honor close to 100 requests by individual companies to keep their information confidential.

There is no deadline for action.

Other information from all sources, including warranty claims, consumer complaints, and field reports, will remain confidential indefinitely, officials said.

Much of the information put on the NHTSA website on Wednesday included preliminary or “early warning” reports from manufacturers on accidents involving specific vehicle makes and models.

The newly released documents contain little or no context and their value to individual consumers is unclear.

However, consumer and safety groups now have easier access to raw safety figures, which may enable them to sharpen their arguments and spot trends.

“It is useful for people who oversee NHTSA’s behavior and the performance of the manufacturers to see if they’ve taken action on problems brought to their attention because of a lawsuit or consumer complaints,” said Joan Claybrook, president of consumer group Public Citizen.

Claybrook’s group led a years-long legal fight to make the information public, mainly over the objection of tiremakers. The government was also sued.

A federal appeals court in Washington ruled in August the information must be made public.

Auto manufacturers did not oppose the public release of its data but argued the information includes unsubstantiated claims and should be analyzed carefully.

“Early warning reports by themselves do not indicate a potential” safety issue, said a statement from the trade group representing most major manufacturers, including General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co and Toyota Motor Corp.

After the Firestone tire saga at the start of the decade when deadly rollovers were blamed on defective tires, Congress directed manufacturers to report certain raw safety information to regulators and told the regulators to make the data public.

The idea was to give the government and the public an early look at closely held figures to more quickly and easily detect trends or other safety problems before they mushroomed into a crisis -- like the one at Firestone, a unit of Japan’s Bridgestone.

NHTSA started collecting data in 2003 and has used information from those filings in 84 investigations, the agency said.

“The information, ever since it started rolling in here, has always performed the function Congress intended -- to get the information into the hands of investigators sooner,” said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson. “We’re just now making some of it available to the public.”

Editing by Gary Hill