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National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Newly Confirmed Head of Federal Vehicle Safety Agency Has His Work Cut Out For Him

9:49 AM PDT on May 27, 2022

Jeanie Ward Waller, now Caltrans Deputy Director
for Planning & Modal Programs, and Dr. Steven Cliff, newly confirmed Administrator of the NHTSA. Photo: Melanie Curry/ Streetsblog

Streetsblog California is a fan of the just-confirmed head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Dr. Steven Cliff, who comes to the federal government by way of the California Air Resources Board. He has been acting administrator of the NHTSA for more than a year, and the Senate just confirmed his appointment.

Dr. Steven Cliff
Dr. Steven Cliff

The NHTSA plays a key role in vehicle safety, but hasn't had a confirmed administrator since the beginning of the Trump administration. That has prevented progress on safety regulations at the national level at the same time that the vehicle industry is releasing ever larger vehicles, traffic deaths are skyrocketing, and industry experiments with autonomous vehicles move forward in the absence of governmental oversight.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has been working to get the NHTSA to take action on vehicle safety regulations for years. Corinne Kisner, NACTO's Executive Director, issued the following statement today:

NACTO congratulates Dr. Steven Cliff on his confirmation as NHTSA Administrator, furthering the Administration’s progress on renewing the Department of Transportation with qualified appointments that have the necessary background to address America’s safety, climate, and equity crises.

Despite commendable progress since his nomination as Deputy Administrator, Dr. Cliff faces a long road ahead to renew NHTSA’s leadership. After decades of inaction, other world regulatory bodies have leapfrogged the U.S. in enacting regulations that keep people safe.

U.S. vehicle standards remain woefully out of date, with critical updates needed to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) star ratings. Virtually every vehicle on the road gets a four or five-star safety rating from NHTSA, despite escalating pedestrian deaths from ever-larger SUVs with often-enormous blind spots.

Dr. Cliff also faces the challenge of integrating technology into vehicles: current practice is to not require common-sense standards like cross-over mirrors, speed governors, and Pedestrian Automatic Emergency Braking, as well as virtually no standards for autonomous vehicle testing, which has tragically led to the loss of many lives.

With over 40,000 people killed in the U.S. last year, Dr. Cliff must urgently act to stem the traffic safety crisis engulfing the country. We stand ready to partner with the Administrator and the rest of the Administration to make our streets safe for everyone.

NACTO has offered detailed recommendations for reforming how vehicles are assessed for safety, including considering safety outcomes for people outside of vehicles, pointing out the connections between vehicle design and street safety.

NACTO has also urged the NHTSA to broaden its approach to vehicle regulation from a strict consumer protection viewpoint to incorporate a more holistic public health picture that protects all users. While some cities are making changes at the local level to increase safety, regulations and ratings based on vehicle aspects such as size, weight, and blind spots are up to the NHTSA, and need more attention than they have been getting.

Dr. Cliff's California experience should serve him well. At Caltrans, he led a strategic planning process that has helped guide the department towards a more holistic approach to safety that concerns itself with more than just the safety and convenience of vehicle occupants. At the Air Resources Board, he helped lead California's fight with the previous administration to be able to set its own vehicle emission standards. He was also instrumental in convincing automakers to come to California's side of the table on that issue.

Nevertheless, vehicle standards have suffered from the lack of federal attention, and Cliff has a lot of catching up to do - and the necessary changes need to come faster than the speed of government. As the nation hurtles towards a brave new world of autonomous and electric vehicles, the NHTSA's work will affect everyone.

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