Bush Highway Safety Nominee Vows to Address Rollovers, Teen Crashes

February 9, 2006

The Bush administration’s choice to lead the government’s traffic safety agency pledged this week to make the nation’s highways and roads safer for families while tackling issues like vehicle rollovers and teenage crashes.

Nicole Nason, who was Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta’s chief legislative liaison, said she would try to “reduce the toll of motor vehicle crashes on America’s families” as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“There’s hardly a family in America who has not been impacted by a car crash,” Nason told a Senate panel.

Nason was nominated in January to lead the agency. If confirmed by the Senate, Nason would succeed Dr. Jeffrey Runge, who departed last year to become chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Securit.

Nason helped shape the federal highway bill approved by Congress last year that includes several safety measures, including requirements for stability standards to prevent rollovers and measures targeting drunken driving and seat belt use.

Nason said the bill provided “significant tools” for safety programs and credited financial incentive grants in the bill for persuading lawmakers in Alaska and Mississippi to approve primary seat belt laws, which allows police to stop vehicles for seat belt violations.

But Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, said in an interview that Nason was the administration’s point person in opposing the safety measures and was concerned about her level of experience on regulatory matters.

“Is it going to be de minimis or is it going to be robust in terms of the safety standards she will issue?” said Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group.

Transportation Department spokesman Robert Johnson dismissed the criticism as “premature and ill-informed.”

Nason told lawmakers that she learned about the importance of auto safety from her father, a retired Suffolk County, N.Y., police chief. She also described herself as a “car crash victim.”

DOT officials said Nason was injured in a February 1997 crash in Arlington, Va., when another driver ran a stop sign and struck her new Jeep Grand Cherokee. The sport utility vehicle was then hit head-on by another vehicle.

Johnson said Nason was not issued a citation and she spent several months in physical therapy following the crash.

Nason said people too often open the metro section of newspapers and read of “teenage highway fatalities, and alcohol will often be involved.”

On fuel economy standards involving light trucks, for which the agency is considering rulemaking, Nason said she would seek “the most efficient and safest rule possible.”

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., asked Nason about her views on the need to strengthen rules involving rollovers, roof crush and the ejection of passengers from vehicles.

Nason said she was “an enormous fan of electronic stability control,” an anti-rollover system. “Electronic stability, I believe, keeps the car on the road. If it does go off the road, we need strong door locks, we need ejection mitigation, we need stronger roofs,” she said.

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