WASHINGTON-The U.S. Department of Transportation is urging a federal district court to rule on whether the Freedom of Information Act bars the release of early warning reporting data under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act.
Both the Rubber Manufacturers Association and the consumer group Public Citizen, which take opposite sides on the question, have asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to rule on the FOIA issue.
The DOT concurred in a brief filed late in May, with U.S. Justice Department attorneys acting on behalf of DOT Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.
"The RMA´s claim presents a straightforward question of statutory interpretation," the agency said in its brief. The dispute between the RMA and DOT that led to the current court case, it noted, hinged precisely on whether the Exemption 3 rule of the Freedom of Information Act forbids the release of early warning data.
In July 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-an agency within DOT-issued a final early warning rule granting confidentiality to production, warranty and consumer complaint data. An amended rule in April 2004 extended confidentiality to common green tire lists, which cover basic tire constructions for various models and brands.
However, NHTSA consistently refused to allow confidential treatment of fatality, injury and property damage data.
These rulings displeased the RMA, which insisted that the TREAD Act granted confidentiality to all early warning data except in the case of active defect investigations. It cited the authority of FOIA Exemption 3, which allows Congress to forbid information disclosure under a statute.
Public Citizen also was angry with the NHTSA standards, insisting that all early warning data should be publicly available at all times. There was no clear evidence, the group said, that any manufacturer would suffer harm from disclosure, and this meant that FOIA protections did not apply.
"The value of the early warning information is diminished if information that manufacturers provide to the agency is kept from the public," Public Citizen said in a petition to NHTSA.
Both the RMA and Public Citizen sued NHTSA, causing the agency to delay indefinitely the release of early warning data.
On March 30, 2006, the court remanded the early warning rule to NHTSA, on the grounds that the agency allowed inadequate notice and comment periods. This ruling did not satisfy any of the parties.
"The court remanded the rule but did not vacate it, which meant that all NHTSA had to do was issue another notice of proposed rulemaking, follow the Administrative Procedures Act a little more carefully and then issue the same rule," an RMA spokesman said.