White House Withdraws NHTSA Nominee Ann Carlson

Move Comes Amid Mounting Opposition From Key Senate Republicans
Ann Carlson
Carlson via transportation.gov; Los Angeles highway traffic by Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

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President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was recently withdrawn from consideration, the White House announced.

Ann Carlson, nominated to lead the agency, is no longer in the running for the agency’s top job, per notification from the White House on May 30.

Carlson resumed her role as chief counsel for the agency. Her nomination’s withdrawal continues to leave NHTSA without a Senate-confirmed administrator.

Mounting opposition from key Senate Republicans minimized the potential for a path forward to confirm the nominee. In a letter to Carlson on May 1, Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and fellow Republicans wrote, “As chief counsel, you had a responsibility to ensure that NHTSA’s proposed regulations complied with the law. However, you instead took actions that were consistent with your long career as an environmentalist without traffic safety experience. In fact, as you told colleagues, the Biden administration recruited you to join NHTSA explicitly to advance its ‘whole of government’ climate change agenda.” The nominee was leading the agency in an acting capacity at that time.

Biden nominated Carlson in February, citing her experience managing federal transportation policy. Explaining its support for Carlson, the White House had pointed out that she led the “timely reporting of safety data on vehicles equipped with automated driving systems and advanced driver assistance systems, initiated rulemaking to require automatic emergency braking in heavy-duty vehicles and pedestrian automatic emergency braking in light-duty vehicles, and helped secure a historic 50% increase in resources for the agency” as part of 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law is credited with approving myriad transportation safety programs and initiatives.

NHTSA is central to the federal government’s mission of improving safety on the nation’s highways. Earlier this year, the agency announced that 42,795 individuals died in 2022. NHTSA’s estimate relied on data about people involved in motor vehicle traffic crashes. The new data set was a slight decrease from 2021’s estimate of 42,939.

“NHTSA is continuing to gather and finalize data on crash fatalities for 2021 and 2022 using information from police crash reports and other sources,” the agency explained when it announced the latest statistics in April.

The Biden administration also has relied on NHTSA to help advance guidance related to fuel economy and automatic emergency braking technology. In May, NHTSA announced a proposed rulemaking to update policies associated with the braking technology.

Phillip Washington

Phillip Washington testifies before a Senate committee. (Associated Press Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) 

“We’ve seen the benefits of the [automatic emergency braking] system in some passenger vehicles already even at lower speeds, and we want to expand the use of the technology to save even more lives. That’s why our proposed rule would require all cars to be able to stop and avoid contact with a vehicle in front of them up to 62 miles per hour. And the proposal would require pedestrian AEB, including requiring that AEB recognize and avoid pedestrians at night,” Carlson stated last month. “This proposed rule is a major safety advancement.”

Had she received favorable backing from the Senate, a confirmed Carlson would have succeeded Steven Cliff. Confirmed by the Senate for the NHTSA post in May 2022, Cliff previously served as the agency’s deputy administrator. He stepped down from NHTSA’s top spot after accepting a leadership role with the California Air Resources Board. Cliff had told senators his efforts would focus on autonomous vehicle technologies and safety programs.

In March, the president’s pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, Phillip A. Washington, withdrew his nomination. Similar to Carlson, the Denver International Airport CEO was met by strong objections from senior Republican policymakers in the Senate.

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