In what consumer rights groups are calling a major "victory for consumers," a database operated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been opened to the public for the first time. The database lists thousands of deaths, injuries and property claims made to auto and tire manufacturers, as well as data on product recalls, lawsuits and defects.

The database is used to study trends in certain products, making it simple for regulators to spot problem areas - in fact, the NHTSA has undertaken 25 defect investigations based on trends seen in the database alone. The system was first developed following the Firestone tire fiasco in the mid 1990s, in which up to 270 people were killed due to faults found in their tires, Reuters reports.

Public Citizen, the same group advocating a much tougher roof strength requirement for passenger vehicles, was quick to point out that the NHTSA still retains exclusive access to vital information such as warranty claims and customer complaints, which have been kept confidential.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers identified the auto industry as one of the most open industries in regards to sharing product information with the government. Since 2003, auto manufacturers have been submitting information to the NHTSA, which is reported quarterly on the agency's website, and this latest development makes the industry even more transparent.

A six-year legal battle was fought over the opening of the database, and while safety advocates recognize it as an important step in improving customer rights and knowledge about products, Public Citizen claims that the database is still not set up to be consumer friendly. A link to the database can be found on the NHTSA's website.