DETROIT — A former California pollution regulator is being nominated to run the nation’s highway safety agency at a time when highway deaths are on the rise.
President Joe Biden has announced his intention to nominate Steven Cliff, who has served as deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since February, to become the agency’s administrator.
If confirmed by the Senate, Cliff would take over the agency at a crucial juncture. Highway deaths are rising, battery electric vehicles are upending the auto industry, and vehicle automation is spreading into more models.
NHTSA, which sets vehicle safety standards, finds safety defects, manages recalls and helps to develop government fuel economy requirements, has been without a confirmed administrator since Mark Rosekind left at the end of 2016. Auto safety advocates have been calling on Biden to make a nomination so a confirmed administrator can start moving on a safety agenda.
The announcement comes three days after The Associated Press reported that the agency is struggling with a growing backlog of safety rules ordered by Congress that are years overdue and could save thousands of lives. An AP review of rule-making by NHTSA under the last three presidents found at least 13 auto safety rules past due, including a rear seat belt reminder requirement passed by Congress in 2012 that was to be implemented by 2015.
The pending safety rules have been slowed by bureaucracy or taken a back seat to other priorities. President Donald Trump sidetracked at least four major road safety proposals that were in development during his term.
An estimated 38,680 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2020, the most since 2007, even though total miles driven dropped at the beginning of the pandemic. In the first three months of 2021, 8,730 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes, a 10.5% increase from the same period last year.
Last year, over half of all crash fatalities involved unbelted drivers or occupants, the highest level since 2012, according to NHTSA.
Over 800 people who were unbelted in the back seat die each year in car crashes. An analysis of NHTSA’s data by a state governors’ safety group found that wearing seat belts would have saved over half of them.
A total of 4,119 people died in large truck crashes in 2019. Sixteen percent of these deaths were truck occupants, 67 percent were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 15 percent were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists. The number of people who died in large truck crashes was 31 percent higher in 2019 than in 2009, when it was the lowest it has been since the collection of fatal crash data began in 1975. The number of truck occupants who died was 51 percent higher than in 2009.
Cliff joined NHTSA shortly after Biden’s inauguration. Before joining the agency, he was deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board, which regulates pollution in the state. He has held a number of positions with the agency and the California Department of Transportation, where he was assistant director for sustainability.
While he was deputy NHTSA administrator, the agency has grown more aggressive in regulating the auto industry. It has required that automakers and tech companies report crashes involving autonomous or partially automated driving systems. It also has forced electric vehicle sales leader Tesla Inc. to recall cars to fix touch screens that go blank, and it opened an investigation into Tesla’s Autopilot partially automated driver-assist system due to crashes into parked emergency vehicles.
Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, said the nomination is an important first step toward working to make roads safer. Under Cliff, NHTSA has “shown a renewed interest” in using enforcement and regulatory options to counter rising crash deaths, Levine said.
“We are hopeful that these early indications are indicative of delivering future safety gains for the public,” he said.
Also under Cliff, NHTSA has started the regulatory process to require automatic emergency braking systems be standard on passenger cars and heavy trucks. Levine said the agency has to do more to bring in current and potential technologies to make the roads safer.
NHTSA also confirmed it will bring on Duke University Professor Missy Cummings as a senior adviser for safety. Cummings has done studies on how humans interact with automated and partially automated vehicles. She’ll join the agency under a program that allows temporary assignments between federal, state and local governments.
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