NHTSA needs more reliable fire crash data

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Automotive News

December 20, 2010

It's a tragic story: Cassidy Jarmon, a 4-year-old Texas girl, died from burns in 2006 after the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee being driven by her mother was hit from behind by a car and burst into flames. Yet the accident never showed up in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database as a fiery crash.

The Center for Auto Safety, which was founded by Ralph Nader, says that's not unusual because fundamental flaws exist in the government's data because of the way information is collected. As a result, the fire crash data on which many investigations are based often are incomplete and unreliable.

For example, the nonprofit safety group says its research found evidence of 44 fiery wrecks involving 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees -- twice as many as NHTSA's database shows -- including the one involving Cassidy Jarmon. The group argues that NHTSA ought to force Chrysler to recall those vehicles.

The agency is weighing the request.

For its part, Chrysler Group argues that the investigation ought to be closed because "the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards."

What is obvious is that across the board -- not just in the case of the Jeep Grand Cherokees -- the government safety agency needs better, more reliable crash data.

At issue between the safety group and the government agency is the reliability of the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System, in which state employees and contractors report the causes of deadly accidents to NHTSA.

An independent study suggested that reporting could be improved if state data collectors relied more heavily on death certificates and coroner reports in addition to police reports, which can be less detailed about whether injury or death was caused by fire.

NHTSA said this month that it has been trying to improve fire crash reporting. The agency cites a need for continual training to maintain the consistency, accuracy and reliability of the data. Perhaps a new data-gathering system or more resources are needed to allow NHTSA to determine easily whether a recall is warranted.

Any solution will cost money. But it is shameful if, in this age of instant global communications, the nation's safety agency can't get the data needed to do its job properly.