An exceptional piece of reporting from USA TODAY's Jayne O'Donnell raises this troubling question.

Did you know that the National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration (NHTSA) sometimes conducts secret investigations into serious injuries and deaths and that the findings of their probes are only available to the media and to you if a Freedom of Information Act request is submitted?

That's not all... sometimes the auto manufacturers can request that the information they submit to NHTSA can be kept confidential too, O'Donnell reports. Does that sound like honest and open disclosure and 'transparency' to you?

O'Donnell points to a 2012 incident that demonstrates the problem. In that year Herman Ray Evans was killed when the tread separated on his 2001 Ford Explorer's tire and the vehicle rolled over into the median and he was ejected. Evans was in just one of 15 fatal tire-related crashes last year in Ford Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers.

From 2002 through 2009 there were 375 similar deaths in mostly older model Explorers and Mountaineers, nearly four times the number that led to the Ford/Firestone mess in 2000. And still, neither NHTSA nor Ford recalled the vehicles.

According to O'Donnell, Ford said it reviewed the issues with NHTSA and found the Explorer had no unique tire issues. And she says informal investigations like this one, which NHTSA conceals from public view, are becoming more common. "That has ramifications for car buyers," O'Donnell wrote, "who may not learn the vehicles they own or are considering buying have quietly raised safety concerns at NHTSA and among automakers."

NHTSA maintains that it needs to be able to conduct preliminary investigative work away from the glare of public scrutiny to detertmine when an investigation will be opened.

But critics like Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies, says: "Where's the methodology? What are the threshholds? No one knows... It's a black art over there."

"If they can hide these kinds of investigations, there's more secrecy and it's less likely they're going to be accountable," Kane said.

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USA TODAY: NHTSA probes raise questions