Auto safety concerns often stay secret - 2/25/13

Herman Ray Evans was killed when the tread separated on his 2001 Ford Explorer's tire, the vehicle rolled over into the median and he was ejected, according to the Daphne, Ala,. police crash report.

Evans was in one of at least 15 fatal tire-related crashes last year in Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers, according to news reports. In Evans' crash, the police department did not find fault with the tiremaker or Ford Motor.

But from April 2002 through 2009, there were 375 similar deaths in mostly older-model Explorers and Mountaineers — nearly four times the number that led to the Ford/Firestone fiasco in 2000, according to an analysis of federal fatality data by the research firm Quality Control Systems. Still, neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor Ford Motor recalled the vehicles.

In a statement, Ford said it reviewed this issue with NHTSA and found the Explorer "has no unique tire issues." Ford says "numerous government safety agencies and independent organizations" have confirmed the Explorer's safety.

Although Ford is required to tell NHTSA about claims it receives about serious injuries and deaths in its vehicles — and NHTSA can investigate them — information about the probes and many of the injuries and deaths is only available to the public and news media through a Freedom of Information Act request. Even then, manufacturers can request the information they submit to the agency be kept confidential.

That's in sharp contrast to all the information posted on NHTSA's website about potential defects, injuries and deaths for the agency's official safety investigations. But informal investigations — where weeks or months can go by before potential problems are brought to the public's attention — are becoming more common. And that has ramifications for car buyers, who may not learn the vehicles they own or are considering buying have quietly raised safety concerns at NHTSA and among automakers.

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