I. Background

    On April 30, 2002, NHTSA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to amend 49 CFR Part 512, Confidential Business Information (Part 512). The proposal was intended to make the regulation clearer and easier to follow, particularly for organizations or individuals who do not submit materials to the agency on a regular or frequent basis, and to update specific sections of the regulation to reflect developments in the law. The agency proposed to reorganize the provisions of Part 512 and to use a question and answer format, designed to guide the reader through the procedural steps of making a claim for confidential treatment of business information. The NPRM also addressed a variety of procedural matters relating to such claims.

    The agency sought comment on whether it should create a series of class determinations of information presumed not to cause substantial competitive harm, in addition to those classes already contained in Appendix B to Part 512 applicable to information the disclosure of which has been determined to cause substantial competitive harm. Although the final rule establishing the early warning reporting obligations had not yet been issued, the agency sought comment on whether to establish class determinations relating to the early warning reporting information.    

    II. Comments Received

    The comment period closed on July 1, 2002. The agency received timely comments from various sectors of the automotive industry, including vehicle manufacturers, tire manufacturers, supplier and equipment manufacturers, and other interested parties. Comments were received from the following trade associations: the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (Alliance), the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM), the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), the Tire Industry Association (TIA), the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association and the Original Equipment Suppliers Association (MEMA/OESA), the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council (AORC), the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), the Truck Manufacturers Association (TMA) and the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). Comments were received also from individual manufacturers: General Motors North America (GM), Cooper Tire (Cooper), Utilimaster, Blue Bird Body Company (Blue Bird), Bendix, Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company (Harley-Davidson), WABCO North America (WABCO), Meritor-WABCO, and Workhorse Custom Chassis (Workhorse). Enterprise Rent-A-Car Company (Enterprise) and the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) also filed comments.  

    On October 17, 2002, representatives of Public Citizen met with the agency and requested the opportunity to file comments three months after the closing of the comment period. As was noted in a memo to the docket, the agency informed Public Citizen that, consistent with its longstanding practice, the agency would consider late filed comments to the extent possible. [1]  Public Citizen filed its comments on November 27, 2002.

    III. Overview of the Comments

    Most of the comments supported the NPRM's approach to make Part 512 easier to read and to update the substantive description of what constitutes confidential business information to conform to developments in the law. Many commenters expressed concern over the number of copies the agency was considering requiring to be filed, the agency's request that certain submitters redact personal identifiers, and various other aspects of the proposal. Objections were also raised to the concept of establishing categories of information presumed not to cause substantial competitive harm if disclosed.

    The majority of the comments responded to the agency's request that commenters address the early warning reporting requirements, which were proposed on December 21, 2001. See 66 FR 66190. Most of the business interests argued that the TREAD Act's disclosure provision in 49 U.S.C. § 30166(m)(4)(C) created a categorical, statutory exemption for information submitted pursuant to the early warning reporting regulations, unless the Administrator makes certain findings specified in 49 U.S.C. § 30167(b). This position was presented with the most detail in the comments filed by the RMA.

    Many of the comments also expressed substantive concerns that the early warning data, given that it is “raw” and comprehensive in scope, could be misleading, available for misuse, and create public confusion. Many business interests presented arguments as to why the disclosure of specific elements of the early warning data would be competitively harmful within their particular sections of the motor vehicle or equipment industry. In addition, many commenters expressed concern that the public disclosure of the early warning information would be unfair to those companies that proactively seek out and collect customer feedback and field data.

    The Alliance and Public Citizen did not adopt the view that the TREAD Act created a statutory exemption from disclosure. Public Citizen and the Alliance agreed with much of the analysis set forth in an internal departmental memo, dated October 27, 2000, and placed into the public docket on March 6, 2001. That memo expressed the view of NHTSA's Chief Counsel that the TREAD Act's disclosure provision did not create a statutory categorical exemption because of the manner in which it referenced 49 U.S.C. § 30167(b). The memo concluded that the provision instead indicated a Congressional intent that NHTSA determine the confidentiality of the early warning reporting data in the same manner as it treated other data submitted to the agency; i.e., under Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 502(b)(4).  

    The Alliance suggested that, in accordance with the October 27, 2000 memo, the agency could apply either Exemption 4 (confidential business information) or Exemption 7 (investigative records), and further argued that either exemption allows the agency to retain the data as confidential. The Alliance asserted that Congress considered the early warning data to be pre-investigative screening information of the type NHTSA traditionally considers part of its internal deliberative process, and intended that the information be confidential until such time as a defect investigation is opened. The Alliance contended that the effect of Section 30166(m)(4)(C) was to modify a presumption in Section 30167(b) generally favoring disclosure.

    Public Citizen argued that the TREAD Act did not create a categorical, statutory exemption from disclosure, and that a class determination that information does not presumptively create competitive harm should apply to information about consumer complaints, warranty data and property damage claims. Public Citizen further contended that it is reasonable to disclose each of the other categories of information because it is summary data by make and model and therefore, in Public Citizen's view, not competitively harmful. Public Citizen also asserted that reports of death and injuries and field reports are materials prepared as part of a defect investigation and therefore should be disclosed.

    IV. Overview of the Final Rule

    In the NPRM, we proposed changes to Part 512 that were designed primarily to simplify and improve the clarity of the regulation and to update specific sections of the regulation to reflect current case law and legislation. The proposal was intended to ensure the efficient processing of requests for confidential treatment and the proper protection for sensitive business information received by NHTSA.

    In a newly captioned Subpart A, the final rule includes the general provisions that establish the purpose, scope, and applicability of the regulation governing claims for confidential treatment, and that define the terms used in the regulation. Additionally, the final rule revises the definition of confidential business information to reflect developments in the law.

    The final rule addresses the number of copies to be submitted to the agency when information is claimed to be confidential. The following must accompany any claim for confidential treatment: (1) a complete copy of the submission, (2) a copy of a public version of the submission and (3) either a second complete copy of the submission or, alternatively, only those portions of the submission containing the material relating to the request for confidential treatment, with any appropriate sections within the pages marked in accordance with this rule. Those filing comments to rulemakings must additionally submit a copy of the public version to the docket. The submissions must also be marked in accordance with this final rule.

    The final rule has eliminated the requirement that submitters redact personal identifying information from their submissions. The final rule specifies in Subpart B the manner in which information submitted to NHTSA and claimed to be confidential must be marked and identifies the supporting documentation that must accompany each submission. Each page containing information claimed to be confidential must be marked. If an entire page is claimed to be confidential, the markings must indicate this clearly. If portions of a page are claimed to be confidential, they must be marked by enclosing them within brackets "[ ]."  

    The final rule clarifies issues relating to the duty to amend claims for confidential treatment. It also provides that, when confidentiality is claimed for information obtained by the submitter from a third party, such as a supplier, the submitter is responsible for obtaining from the third party the information that is necessary to comply with the submission requirements of Part 512, including the requirement to submit a certificate and supporting information.

    We have decided against the creation of categories of information presumed not to cause substantial competitive harm for a variety of reasons, including the fact that such a presumption is duplicative of existing law. Class determinations are intended to reduce or eliminate the need for individual consideration of information that, by its nature, has been determined to cause substantial competitive harm if released. Class determinations alleviate the unnecessary burden of filing individual claims for confidential treatment. Information not subject to one of the class determinations is already presumed to be publicly available. Submitters must make individual claims relating to the information and carry the burden of showing that disclosure would either likely cause substantial competitive harm or, if the information is voluntarily submitted, that it is not ordinarily released to the public.

    We nonetheless remain concerned that submitters may routinely seek confidential treatment for information the agency has consistently determined would not cause competitive harm if released. We will take appropriate action to discourage those who repeatedly file claims for confidential treatment despite our consistent rejection of similar requests.

    Consistent with the analysis contained in the October 27, 2000 memo, we have determined that Section 30166(m)(4)(C) of the TREAD Act did not create a categorical statutory exemption pursuant to Exemption 3 of the FOIA applicable to all early warning reporting information.   We have decided to consider the confidentiality of early warning reporting information pursuant to Exemption 4 of the FOIA, which exempts confidential business information from disclosure. We have created a series of class determinations covering those portions of the early warning reporting information we have determined are entitled to confidential treatment. We are permitting the information in these classes to be submitted and given confidential treatment without the filing of a Part 512 justification and the accompanying certificate.

    [1]   The agency's analysis is scheduled to begin promptly after the comment period closes and, in general, we expect all comments to be filed within the specified period. We analyze the comments and all other available data to make decisions on how to shape our final rules. Allowing commenters to file late provides an unfair opportunity to critique the comments of those who submitted their comments in a timely manner. In some rulemakings it is possible to consider late comments without delaying the agency's decision making. In general, however, we only consider late comments to the extent they are filed before the agency has made significant progress towards the next step in the regulatory process and to the extent that they critique the agency's proposal.