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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is operating without a Senate-confirmed leader again, leaving a void atop the agency tasked with preventing road injuries and deaths even as the number of fatalities moves sharply in the wrong direction.
Steven Cliff, who in May became the first confirmed NHTSA administrator since early 2017, bowed out to return to the California Air Resources Board starting Sept. 12. Ann Carlson, the agency’s chief counsel, has taken over after Cliff lasted just over three months as full-time head of the regulator.
While President Joe Biden plans to nominate another permanent administrator, the process could take a while. Cliff was first put forward for the role in December and had to be renominated after Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) held up several of the president’s picks for Transportation Department roles for months. A White House official declined to comment on the timeline for an appointment to replace Cliff, and NHTSA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Five days after announcing Cliff’s departure, the agency reported some 9,560 traffic fatalities from January through March, the worst first-quarter showing in 20 years. And this wasn’t just a blip — the number of deaths on U.S. roads has been soaring since the tail end of Donald Trump’s presidency, rising for seven consecutive quarters.
NHTSA wasn’t standing idly by as this happened. This summer, the agency made an $8 million national media buy for a “Speeding Wrecks Lives” ad campaign. Another part of its job is enforcement activity, and last year was eventful — there were a record 1,093 vehicle and related-equipment recalls affecting roughly 34.3 million products. The ones that generated the most headlines had to do with Tesla, whose controversial driver-assistance system Autopilot is the subject of two defect investigations, one of which the agency escalated in June.
But the backgrounds of NHTSA’s leaders are in climate policy rather than fields more squarely linked to safety. Cliff has a chemistry doctorate from the University of California-San Diego, and completed a postdoc in atmospheric sciences at the University of California-Davis, before first going to work at CARB in 2008. Carlson also focused on climate change and air pollution law before joining NHTSA early last year.
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By contrast, Mark Rosekind, the last permanent administrator before Cliff, specialized in issues related to sleep and fatigue. During his tenure, NHTSA oversaw the biggest recall in history — pressuring automakers to replace airbags made by Takata, which went bankrupt — and compelled Fiat Chrysler to buy back vehicles because the agency wasn’t confident in the company’s plans to fix a fuel-tank defect.
One of Carlson’s first public appearances as acting administrator will be at the Governors Highway Safety Association’s annual meeting starting later this week in Louisville, Ky. The nonprofit made clear when NHTSA announced its fatality figures for the first quarter where it stands.
“We must not become desensitized to the tragedy of roadway deaths,” Jonathan Adkins, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “GHSA and other leading national safety groups have urged President Biden to quickly nominate a qualified individual that can guide NHTSA through this turbulent time in traffic safety.”