The so-called "early warning" data was released because of a ruling by a federal appeals court in July that barred the government from withholding key data reported by manufacturers. Some data was allowed to remain confidential, including warranty claims and field reports submitted by the manufacturer.
The data, which goes back to 2003, is reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by automakers, tire makers, motorcycle companies and child seat manufacturers on a quarterly basis. The public database now provides information from 21 automakers.
During the first three months of 2008, the most recent data available, General Motors Corp. reported receiving complaints of 52 deaths and 610 injuries, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Ford Motor Co. said it had received reports of 40 deaths and 340 injuries and Chrysler LLC reported receiving complaints of 23 deaths and 149 injuries during the span.
In the same period, Toyota Motor Corp. advised NHTSA of 8 deaths and 106 injuries, Nissan Motor Corp. said it had allegations of 7 deaths and 34 injuries and Honda Motor Co. reported 3 deaths and 22 injuries.
Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, cautioned that the data often includes unsubstantiated claims and could not be used to confirm a safety problem.
He said a company with a large global presence reports data from foreign countries in addition to the United States and a manufacturer's size and vehicle sales would play a large role in the data set.
Consumer groups said it would be useful information to car buyers. Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group that sued to have the data made available, called it a "smashing success for consumers."
She recommended that owners and car shoppers use the database to learn more about specific vehicles.
NHTSA said they had been using the data since December 2003 as a supplement to the estimated 40,000 consumer complaints they receive each year. Through the end of August, NHTSA said it had used the early warning data in 84 defect investigations, which can sometimes lead to vehicle recalls.
About 100 manufacturers, mostly tire companies, have asked NHTSA to keep their data private because they contend it includes confidential business information.
Dan Zielinski, a spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association, which represents tire makers, said the data included "accusations and people who review this database should keep that in mind."
On the Net:
The early warning reports can be found at: http://www.safercar.gov