Feds Withhold Fatal-Accident Info from Public

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."

  • that is ridiculous. i can’t fathom why that information would possibly be withheld from the public against the FoIA. the info does not pose a threat (real or imagined) to our national security nor is it likely to upset economic stability. the most that would happen with that info is a few token traffic calming measures at a few intersections and possibly mandate a slight ‘redesign’ (yeah right) of some SUVs.

  • bubbles

    The “personal privacy” excuse given by NHTSA is plainly mendacious and incorrect. All traffic fatality locations are recorded by police departments, shared with insurance companies, and, as the article points out, made public in government databases.

    The only issue here is whether the geocodes will be made available. Goecodes would not provide any information that’s not already public, but they would provide the information in a way that’s more useable for researchers.

    Researchers and engineers could be putting the traffic fatality geocodes to use righ now to make roads safer. Once again, the federal government shows that it’s more concerned with control, secrecy and corporate kowtowing than with saving American lives.

  • galvoguy

    Geocodes, with the increasing popularity of GPS units, the GPS could give a warning when you are approaching a location that has had numerous collisions/fatalities. There are clusters due to poor design or local conditions that infrequent travelers may not know about.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith
  • Galvoguy (currently comment 3) offers an elegant and straightforward countermeasure that might benefit many drivers. My original thinking was oriented to trafficway improvement. But the driver warning idea is something that might be very effective as well.

    Unfortunately, the necessary latitude and longitude data are kept secret by the
    Chief Counsel
    National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
    400 Seventh Street, SW
    Washington, DC 20590