Two other states also have said no to data
|||Public safety takes back seat to lawsuit concerns|
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Curtis Lum
Hawai'i isn't the only state that has refused to release traffic accident data in electronic form to the public.
Kansas and New York also denied news agencies access to the transportation data. But unlike in Hawai'i, where the issue has yet to be resolved, the Kansas DOT reluctantly agreed to provide a local newspaper the data, while New York courts ordered its transportation officials to release the information to a newspaper there.
Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said denying access to accident information is not a problem his organization often sees. He said accident data is "typically presumptively public." But he said he's heard of states like Hawai'i that have refused to release the data — and like Hawai'i often cite liability concerns.
Davis said, however, when states are asked to refer to the statute that allows them to withhold the data, most officials can't.
"They have to be able to put their finger on the exact point in the law that tells them that it's exempt, and I bet you they can't do that," he said.
When asked to explain why it can withhold traffic accident data, the Hawai'i Department of Transportation cited an opinion by the attorney general.
But when asked for a copy, the DOT said the opinion was "protected from disclosure because of attorney-client privilege" and would not release that information.
In the past, transportation officials have cited a federal statute that prohibits release of certain kinds of accident data in lawsuits against states. Hawai'i officials say they have lost cases involving multimillion-dollar judgments because attorneys have gotten ahold of such data.
But Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said the possibility that traffic accident data could be used in lawsuits against the state is not a legal excuse to withhold the records.
"You may be worried about homeland security or terrorism, but for a state to apparently be concerned about potential litigation over accidents and preventing the use of the information that can protect the public and prevent accidents is counterproductive, silly and dangerous," Houston said.
Houston said a state could be endangering the welfare of the public by failing to inform residents of highways or intersections that present safety concerns. By releasing this information, and in electronic form, the data could be analyzed "so that patterns and trends can be detected" and corrected, he said.
Such was the case in Kansas about seven years ago. The Wichita Eagle requested traffic accident data from the state's transportation department after two teenagers died in a crash involving a seizure-prone driver. The driver had a record of 10 serious accidents in the 1990s, and the Wichita Eagle sought the data to see if it would reveal other problems and trends that impacted traffic safety.
Jim Lewers, managing editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen and former crime and safety team leader at the Wichita Eagle, said the Kansas DOT refused to release the information and later said it would charge the newspaper $51,000 for the data. Lewers said the state eventually gave in when it became clear that it would lose a challenge in court.
Once the newspaper was able to sort out the information, The Wichita Eagle published a series of reports on traffic safety. The staff produced a series on accident-prone drivers.
Some of the conclusions drawn by the series surprised state officials, who later stepped up enforcement on the roadways, Lewers said.
"The information is valuable to the public," Lewers said. "Everybody drives and everybody wants to know how they can be safer, and everybody wants to know if certain roads are safe or if doing certain things while you're in your car are safe."
In New York, a state appeals court ordered the transportation department to release traffic accident information to Newsday. In 2003, the newspaper had asked for data on the most dangerous stretches of road on Long Island and New York City.
A lengthy court battle resulted in the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ordering the transportation officials to hand over the information.
A Newsday representative said the staff is in the process of analyzing the information.
Davis of the Freedom of Information coalition said that only by releasing traffic accident data will traffic safety get better.
"The way to improve intersections and safen the roads is by discussing them," Davis said. "Through public discourse comes better public policy.
"The preamble to open-government laws is that scrutiny of the system makes it better. How do you provide any meaningful scrutiny of a traffic system that is secret?"
Reach Curtis Lum at firstname.lastname@example.org.