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Our FOIA Request to NHTSA
Involving Injury Claims
in Model Year 2018 Ford Explorers

Santee, California Crash Site.

FOIA complaint.

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Exploding airbag

Quality Control Systems Corp. filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on June 20, 2019 with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to obtain records related to Early Warning Reporting (EWR) claims and notices involving injury incidents involving model year 2018 Ford Explorers in which "visibility" was alleged to be a contributing factor.

From the second quarter of 2018 through the first quarter of 2019, Ford reported 16 claims or notices involving visibility in the 2018 Explorer of 31 death or injury claims in total (about 52 percent). Six of these injury claims involved 2 victims; there were no claims of visibility-related deaths in the EWR data for the 2018 Explorer during the period studied.

In contrast during the same period, there were 1,807 injury and death claims or notices reported by all manufacturers to NHTSA for all other 2018 models apart from the Explorer. Of these, only 86 (or about 5 percent) involved visibility. That is less than one-tenth the comparable rate per claim for the 2018 Explorer.

The specific records we sought through the Freedom of Information Act involved potential requests made to Ford by NHTSA for any additional information about the injury claims and notices of which the Agency was made aware from data submitted to Ford through the EWR system during calendar year 2018. We also requested records of any inquiries to Ford related to the safe performance of the specific systems and components of 2018 Ford Explorers through which a driver views the surroundings of the vehicle. Ford's responses to such potential requests made by NHTSA were also sought.

Because of the remarkable pattern of injury claims allegedly related to visibility involving the 2018 Explorer, we requested expedited treatment of our FOIA request in accordance with 49 CFR 7.31. The number and timing of these reported injury incidents, as well as the specificity of the make/model/model year and the involved component, may be indicators of an important, emerging safety issue. The information we requested - if it existed - could have been reasonably expected to shed light on this question.

The regulation requires a decision on our request for expedited processing within ten calendar days of its receipt. However, beyond a simple acknowledgement dated June 25, 2019 that our request had been received, the Agency did not respond at all to our FOIA request until August 22, 2019. (The Agency's non-responsiveness to our request for expedited processing is itself also part of a notable pattern).

When the Agency finally did respond, they answered that they "did not locate any records responsive to [our] request." It is reasonable to conclude from this that, at least through August 22, 2019, NHTSA had not sought any additional information from Ford related to visibility in 2018 Ford Explorers, despite having numerous EWR reports of injury claims allegedly involving "visibility" at a rate per claim that is far higher than all other 2018 models involving that component.

To be clear, there is no certainty that any vehicle and component combination identified as a candidate for further review by the surveillance methods we have developed for the Early Warning Reporting data will have a safety related defect. The identification of unusual patterns of claims is not based either on legally required standards or on performance standards that are economically achievable with the best available design, manufacturing, and testing practices.

Yet a follow-up audit by the Dept. of Transportation's Inspector General more than two years after the Early Warning Reporting system was put in place revealed that the system developed by NHTSA to analyze these data did not have "the advanced analytical capabilities originally envisioned to help point analysts to potential safety defects." Indeed, the EWR system failed to avert a major safety scandal in 2010 regarding recalls related to unintended acceleration in some Toyota models. (See Toyota's Deferred Prosecution Agreement, the one-count Criminal Information, and the stipulated Statement of Facts).

Because NHTSA's analytical approach to potential safety defect surveillance data remained substantially unchanged following the 2010 Toyota scandal, there was every reason to expect another, major, public health and safety tragedy, such as the GM ignition switch scandal that occurred in 2014.

Our track record demonstrates that innovative statistical techniques can help to prevent future vehicle safety surveillance failures with consequent property damage, adverse commercial impacts, injuries, and loss of life. To accomplish this goal requires the Agency recognize and seek follow-up information about a possible signal of a potential vehicle safety issue in the Early Warning Reporting data for deaths and injuries whenever such action is indicated by the data.

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