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Emily Welker, Published March 19 2013

ND bill would close nearly all public info about car crashes

BISMARCK – A bill that would close the door to people seeking information about car crashes and the people in them is facing scrutiny in the state House this week.

Senate Bill 2310 would close off much of the information now available to the public about car crashes, except for the drivers’ ages and names, said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Grand Forks, vice chairman of the Transportation Committee.

He said the bill was introduced because of a growing trend reported by the state Department of Motor Vehicles of companies making bulk record requests about crashes.

That caused concern among legislators that people’s privacy would be breached by large insurance companies, law firms and chiropractors looking to use the information to drum up business, Owens said.

“I’m struggling to see where any companies who sell information have any right to that information,” he said. “The way things are written now, it doesn’t protect you. It gives your Social Security number, your driver’s license, cellphone, address,” and other information.

Owens said this could be a problem if the survivor of domestic violence or stalking becomes involved in a crash, allowing a potential predator to track down the victim more easily.

Critics of the bill are concerned about its stifling effect on North Dakota’s public records laws, which currently mandate that public records remain open unless a specific law is crafted to seal them.

Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney and lobbyist for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said passing the bill is a potential slippery slope when it comes to keeping public information public.

“You can take any record and say, why do you need this, why do you need that and pretty soon, there won’t be any records,” McDonald said. “The more information available from our government, the more transparency, the better. You paid for those records.”

McDonald said it is particularly offensive that language in the bill would make it possible for an insurance company to get access to the records while the public would be excluded, saying it was “a double slap in the face.”

The bill’s language allows people in a crash, their legal representatives and their insurance companies to get information about the crash.

The only senator who voted against the bill when it passed in the Senate was Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson. He said he felt the bill could have been more narrowly tailored to preserve the public’s right to information, including the media, while focusing on excluding big corporations from “phishing” for personal information on crash victims.

Armstrong, a defense attorney, said he is concerned about the chilling effect the bill might have on members of the media trying to collect information about important crashes for a story, a concern he said was dismissed by fellow legislators who thought reporters could get information elsewhere.

Owens said the bill likely will be amended, although to what degree he isn’t sure.

“We’ve been working to find a way to reach a delicate balance,” he said. “I don’t know what direction the committee will go.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541