An article in the LA Times (reg required) details how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has systematically withheld information on fatal accidents from the public, even going so far as to deny Freedom of Information Act requests from researchers.
R.A. Whitworth, whose Maryland-based company conducts highway safety research for attorneys, insurance companies and even government agencies, discovered a few years ago that federal regulators were collecting the global coordinates of fatal accidents and linking them to its database, known as the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS. The database is one of the most important kept by the federal government.
Almost by happenstance, Whitworth discovered on the agency’s website in 2004 the geographic coordinates of fatal accidents. He immediately saw the value: He could create maps of accidents, providing insights into where they were occurring on any given day and under what conditions.
He downloaded the data to his computer, but a few days later it was gone from the website. He called the agency and explained that the data had disappeared and he would like the agency to repost it. Officials called the posting a mistake and said he should erase it from his own computer, he recalled.
Whitworth waited until the following year, to see if the agency would again mistakenly post the data. This time, it did not. So he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency in September 2005. The request was denied.
The rejection letter said that "the disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Exactly how a set of coordinates would invade a dead person’s privacy was not made clear. Police routinely release the names of fatal-accident victims….
Whitworth appealed the decision in November 2005, but never heard back from the agency.
What did he learn from the 2004 data that he downloaded? Among other things, he discovered an alarming number of crashes of sport utility vehicles occurred on hot days on Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County, as Southern Californians headed to Las Vegas. That interested him, because he is doing research for attorneys suing Ford Motor Co. for rollovers involving Explorers equipped with Firestone tires.
"Is there a disconnect between where the money is needed to curb fatal accidents and where it is actually going?" Whitworth wonders. "I don’t know, but I am not satisfied with the answers I am getting."