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President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was easily approved by a U.S. Senate committee on Feb. 2.
Steven Cliff, presently NHTSA’s deputy administrator, was cleared by the Commerce Committee by a voice vote. His nomination advanced to the Senate floor where Democratic leaders will schedule a vote to confirm as early as this month.
Cliff has indicated he intends to focus the agency’s efforts on boosting safety programs across the country’s mobility landscape as well as managing the adoption of vehicle technologies.
“Traffic fatalities are on the rise. Each year, an epidemic of more than 38,000 deaths occurs on our nation’s roads,” the nominee recently told the panel. “This is unacceptable. Not only must we reverse the trend, we must put ourselves on track to eliminate roadway fatalities altogether.”
He also expounded the agency’s regulatory agenda: “NHTSA is woefully behind in delivering mandated regulations due to limited resources and competing needs. We need to align resources to current challenges and workloads to deliver new, much needed safety and fuel economy improvements for the future.”
Responding to the senators’ questions centering on the implementation of a $1 trillion infrastructure law, the nominee insisted that if confirmed he would dedicate his staff to utilize the increases to NHTSA’s resources.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was enacted in November. About $500 billion was authorized for transportation programs, such as enhancing freight connectivity, facilitating the adoption of mobility technologies and improving highway safety across NHTSA’s purview and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Senators also pressed Cliff on NHTSA’s role in regulating autonomous driving technology. Several members of the Commerce Committee argued autonomous vehicles represent an opportunity to address safety concerns on the nation’s roadways.
The nominee responded that NHTSA would dedicate its resources to examine automated technology opportunities and evaluate its safety potential.
“Information that confirms the safe operation of such technologies will help spur continued development. NHTSA considers the full spectrum of available technologies in its policy considerations, and this includes reviewing its own regulations to determine whether barriers exist to the continued advancement and safe deployment of technologies,” he told transportation policymakers in the Senate.
While vehicles must adhere to federal regulations on safety standards, industry stakeholders continue to press regulators for additional guidance on autonomous vehicles.
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The committee’s approval of Cliff’s nomination occurred as NHTSA released its early estimate of traffic fatalities for the first nine months of last year. The agency estimated 31,720 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes from January through September. USDOT recently released the National Roadway Safety Strategy, a comprehensive outlook for preventing roadway fatalities.
“We have to change a culture that accepts as inevitable the loss of tens of thousands of people in traffic crashes,” Cliff said in a separate statement provided by USDOT. “This will require a transformational and collaborative approach to safety on our nation’s roads.”
Prior to NHTSA, Cliff was on the California Air Resources Board. According to background the agency provided, he earned degrees from the University of California, San Diego.
The Senate Commerce Committee also approved the nominations of retired Rear Admiral Ann Phillips to become administrator at the Maritime Administration and Victoria Wassmer to fill the role of chief financial officer at USDOT.