Former Calif. regulator tapped to run highway safety agency

DETROIT, A former California pollution regulator has been nominated to head the country's highway safety agency.

Former Calif. regulator tapped to run highway safety agency

DETROIT, A former California pollution regulator has been nominated to head the country's highway safety agency.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced that he will nominate Steven Cliff to be the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Cliff has been serving as the deputy administrator since February.

Cliff would assume control of the agency if he is confirmed by the Senate. Highway deaths are increasing, battery electric cars are disrupting the auto industry, while vehicle automation is expanding into more models.

Since Mark Rosekind's departure at the end 2016 NHTSA has not had a confirmed administrator. This agency sets vehicle safety standards and manages recalls. Auto safety advocates are urging Biden to nominate a nominee so that a confirmed administrator can begin moving forward on a safety agenda.

The announcement comes just three days after The Associated Press reported on the agency's struggle with a growing backlog of safety rules ordered years ago by Congress. This could potentially save thousands of lives. A AP review of NHTSA rule-making under the three previous presidents revealed that at least 13 safety rules were past due. This included a rear seat belt reminder mandate passed by Congress in 2012. It was to be implemented by 2015.

Bureaucracy has slowed down or given way to other priorities, resulting in the pending safety rules being delayed. At least four of the major road safety initiatives that were being developed during Trump's term were halted by bureaucracy.

In 2020, an estimated 38,680 people died in traffic accidents, which was the highest number of deaths since 2007. However, total miles traveled dropped significantly at the start of the pandemic. 8.730 people were killed in motor vehicle traffic accidents during the first three months 2021, an increase of 10.5% over the same period last years.

According to NHTSA, more than half of all fatal crashes in 2012 involved unbelted drivers and occupants. This is the highest number since 2012.

Every year, more than 800 people are killed in car accidents because they were not properly restrained in their backseats. A state governor's safety group analyzed the NHTSA data and found that seat belts would have prevented over half of these deaths.

Cliff joined NHTSA soon after Biden was inaugurated. Prior to joining NHTSA, Cliff was deputy executive at the California Air Resources Board which regulates the state's pollution. He has held several positions at the agency, as well as the California Department of Transportation where he was assistant Director for Sustainability.

He was the NHTSA deputy administrator. However, the agency has become more aggressive in its regulation of the auto industry. It requires automakers and tech companies to report any crashes that involve autonomous or partially-automated driving systems. Tesla Inc., a leader in electric vehicle sales, was forced to recall vehicles to repair touch screen problems. It also opened an investigation into Tesla Autopilot partially automated driver assistance system after it crashed into emergency vehicles parked nearby.

Jason Levine, executive Director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety, stated that the nomination was an important step towards making roads safer. Cliff said that NHTSA "shown renewed interest" in using regulatory and enforcement options to combat rising crash deaths.

He said, "We are optimistic that these early indicators are indicative of future safety gains for public,"

Cliff also stated that NHTSA started the regulatory process to mandate automatic emergency brake systems on passenger cars as well as heavy trucks. Levine stated that the agency must do more to introduce current and future technologies to make roads safer.

NHTSA confirmed that it will hire Missy Cummings, a professor at Duke University, as a senior advisor for safety. Cummings is an expert on human interaction with partially and fully automated vehicles. Cummings will join the agency as part of a program that allows for temporary assignments between local, state and federal governments.

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