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Feds Delay Auto Safety Data

The government's auto safety agency is backing off a plan to make public information on vehicle-related deaths and injuries, pending a court ruling on exactly what data should be disclosed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said this spring it would complete its early warning system by Oct. 1 and release much of the data to the public. The system, demanded by Congress following the 2000 recall of Firestone tires, requires automakers and others to submit data on deaths, injuries, consumer complaints, property damage and warranty claims.

NHTSA agreed to keep warranty claims and consumer complaints confidential after automakers said releasing that data could harm competition. The consumer group Public Citizen sued in March to get access to that information.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents tire makers, asked to intervene in the case because it wants to keep information on deaths, injuries and property damage confidential. A judge agreed and has ordered the U.S. Department of Transportation to respond to the Rubber Manufacturers' claims by Sept. 28.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said Friday the agency decided to wait until the courts decide what information should be public.

"We're caught in the middle because we've got lawsuits that are 180 degrees from each other," Tyson said.

Tyson said NHTSA is collecting the data and that the system led to a recall of 490,000 Bridgestone/Firestone tires earlier this year.

"The information is in the hands of the people it was intended for, which is this agency and the defect investigators who are responsible for identifying and seeking remedies for defects as soon as possible," Tyson said.

But Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, said NHTSA is going too far.

"I think it's hard to understand why the government is holding back information," she said. "The spirit of the (law) was really to get information out there so that both the government and individuals can have access to safety information to keep them safer."

By Dee-Ann Durbin