It may be hard to remember, but the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had someone officially in charge. They were called trustees, and Americans could count on the government to appoint them and then confirm them within a year of their predecessor’s departure. The position has always been political, often held by lobbyists deemed acceptable by any dominant political party of the day. But things have been different in the 21st century, with NHTSA often run by “acting administrators” who are simply meant to be placeholders until Congress can confirm a valid replacement.
The agency hasn’t had an official leader since 2017, when Mark Rosekind left the organization to become the head of safety innovation for self-driving vehicle startup Zoox. NHTSA has had a few acting bosses since then, with Steven Cliff filling the void since February 2021. However, he’s just come one step closer to dropping the word “acting” from his job title.
Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that Cliff had won favor with the Senate Commerce Committee. Having already been named head of NHTSA by President Joe Biden in October 2021, that sets him up for a show of hands. Although he is not the only name promoted by the committee and will no doubt be rebuffed by an opposition that feels the Democratic-controlled Congress has different priorities.
The committee also put forward several other Transportation Department officials, including Ann Phillips to lead the Maritime Administration, John Putnam to be the department’s general counsel, and Victoria Wassmer to be its chief financial officer.
Biden had to reappoint many of his transportation picks, including Cliff, this year after their nominations expired during the Senate recess. Transportation nominees still face hurdles to confirmation.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has been blocking nominations for Department of Transportation and Commerce nominees since November, saying he will continue until the commerce panel convenes a hearing with department secretaries on bottlenecks supply chain bottleneck. A spokesperson for Scott said Tuesday the senator plans to maintain that hold.
Cliff’s background with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) made him less popular with Republican lawmakers. Lawmakers are also annoyed that NHTSA has a backlog of safety rules that Congress has asked it to update as new automotive technologies have become commonplace. Some of them have been delayed by predictable bureaucratic backlash. But others have been blocked by politicians seeing the role of established government regulators very differently. Cliff is arguably emblematic of the fight, representing the side that sees NHTSA as concerned with more than performing safety recalls and reducing accident rates.
Although the debate does not take place exclusively along party lines. Rosekind was also a California Democrat when he led NHTSA and his vision for the administration was to focus primarily on the fundamentals, investigate thoroughly (slowly), and strike hard once the groundwork for a recall had been laid down. been established. But there were allegations from his own party that he was unaware of how future technologies could change the regulatory landscape and that his focus on major infractions was leaving automakers off the hook with smaller ones.
Dubbed “Industry Leader of The Year” in 2015 by Automotive News, Rosekind had gained a reputation for being tough on manufacturers in terms of protecting motorists from defects – something that was often attributed to his time with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Early in his tenure at NHTSA, he conducted major investigations into Fiat Chrysler, General Motors and Takata Corporation. These efforts resulted in major recalls, with Takata becoming the greatest example in automotive history.
In contrast, Cliff focused more on urban congestion, impaired driving, fuel economy, the emergence of intelligent transport systems, the health implications of vehicle pollution, the increase in the number of pedestrians killed, the introduction of alternative energy vehicles (e.g. electric cars), and the harmonization of global standards to better facilitate international trade. He throws a many wider net than its predecessor, stepping outside the confines of more traditional NHTSA roles. However, Cliff believes the organization could theoretically eliminate all road deaths with additional federal funding and proper use of the latest technology.
“The number of road deaths is on the rise. Each year, an epidemic of more than 38,000 deaths occurs on the roads of our country,” the candidate told the committee. “This is unacceptable. Not only do we need to reverse the trend, but we need to get on track to eliminate road deaths completely.
“NHTSA is woefully behind in implementing mandatory regulations due to limited resources and competing needs. We need to align resources with today’s challenges and workloads to deliver much-needed new safety and fuel economy improvements for the future.
Critics have suggested this signals government overreach while supporters believe that Cliff is simply adapting the agency to the times.[Image: Architect of the Capitol/AOC.gov]
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