updated 10/31/2006 4:28:39 PM ET 2006-10-31T21:28:39

The government proposed on Tuesday to keep confidential some vehicle safety data covering consumer complaints, warranty claims and information on vehicles involved in deaths and injuries.

Consumer groups have tried to get access to the data, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the information “will cause substantial competitive harm and will impair the government’s ability to obtain this information in the future if released.”

The proposal, similar to past versions, came in response to a ruling by a federal judge earlier this year that the agency had failed to provide enough notice to comment on an early warning system plan. In the March ruling, District Judge Richard J. Leon sent the proposal back to the agency.

The early warning system was part of legislation approved by Congress following the massive recall of Firestone tires in 2000. It required automakers and other manufacturers to submit data on deaths, injuries, consumer complaints, property damage and warranty claims.

NHTSA said its proposal would consider certain early warning information as confidential, including production numbers not involving light vehicles, consumer complaints, paid warranty claims and field reports.

The last six characters of the 17-character vehicle identification number for vehicles involved in death and injury reports would be kept confidential. NHTSA said the exemption was grounded in public records laws that protect “information that would result in a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy if disclosed.”

NHTSA noted the first 11 characters of the VIN provide information on the make, model, model year and engine, while the last six identify the specific vehicle. The agency said it was concerned releasing the full VIN numbers “would result in communications and inquiries from third parties that would invade personal privacy.”

Since Congress enacted the federal TREAD Act in 2000, NHTSA has not disclosed any of the data because of litigation brought forth by a consumer group and the tire industry.

The agency agreed to keep warranty claims and consumer complaints confidential after automakers said releasing the data could harm competition. That led to consumer group Public Citizen suing in March 2004 to get access to the data.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents tire makers, intervened in the case because it wanted to keep information on deaths, injuries and property damage confidential.

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