WASHINGTON - A legal fight is taking shape concerning how much access consumers should have to industry safety records.
"Ultimately, a judge will decide," says Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It is a matter of law, not of policy."
A law enacted in 2000 requires automakers to submit safety records to NHTSA every three months. Suppliers must make similar but less-extensive reports.
NHTSA analysts review the data for signs of possible vehicle defects before crashes, injuries and deaths occur.
The industry argues that NHTSA should keep much of the information secret for competitive reasons.
Safety and consumer groups contend it should be made public.
NHTSA says it releases relevant information when it identifies a possible defect.
The dispute reflects continued fallout from the Firestone tire failures and related crashes that first were disclosed about four years ago. Congressional hearings determined that the faulty tires could have been detected much sooner, before nearly 300 people died.
The incidents led Congress and President Clinton to enact a safety law called the TREAD Act. The acronym stands for Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation.