Senate aide picked to oversee NHTSA

December 1, 2009

Senate aide picked to oversee NHTSA

Dem counsel pressed for environmental, safety rules long opposed by auto industry

Detroit News Washington Bureau

President Barack Obama is expected to nominate as early as today a Senate aide as the nation’s top auto regulator — a post that will have a critical impact on vehicle safety regulations.

David L. Strickland, 41, is expected to be announced as Obama’s pick to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, several officials said Monday.

As senior Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee since August 2001, Strickland played a major role in pressing environmental rules long fought by the U.S. auto industry. He also helped write auto safety legislation and the "Do Not Call" registry law.

The White House declined comment Monday, but did not dispute the Strickland nomination report. A spokeswoman for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also declined to comment. Strickland did not return messages.

The White House struggled to fill the job after its first nominee, Charles "Chuck" Hurley, withdrew in the spring under pressure from environmentalists. Senate confirmation is required.

David Kelly, who was NHTSA administrator until Jan. 20 under President George W. Bush, called Strickland, a Harvard University Law School graduate, "a solid choice."

"He’s a very fair guy," Kelly said. "He knows auto safety."

Kelly noted that Strickland, as a Democratic aide, helped work on the 2005 five-year transportation authorization bill. That legislation included several auto safety provisions.

"Even though the Republicans were in control, (Strickland) was one of the main guys getting auto safety provisions in that bill," he said.

Strickland, a longtime congressional aide, also helped write the 2007 energy bill, which hiked passenger car fuel efficiency standards for the first time since they were created in 1975. That bill increased fleetwide fuel efficiency standards by at least 10 mpg over 10 years, to 35 mpg by 2020.

Automakers face a flurry of new safety and environmental regulations in the coming years, and the new NHTSA chief will play a key role in setting policies that could save thousands of lives and billions of gallons of fuel — but also cost automakers billions.

The Obama administration is on pace to reach roughly 35 mpg four years early — a move that will cost the auto industry $60 billion, NHTSA has said.

NHTSA has working on a number of important auto safety issues this year. The agency ran the $3 billion "cash for clunkers" program that convinced nearly 700,000 motorists to trade in their gas-guzzling models for vouchers of up to $4,500 toward new, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Most recently, NHTSA has conducted an intensive investigation into the issues surrounding the recall of 4.3 million Toyota vehicles linked to sudden acceleration issues and faulty floor mats.

The agency also doubled the required roof strength of vehicles to safeguard drivers during rollovers, set new braking rules for large trucks and proposed tire efficiency rules.

NHTSA and the Environmental Protection Agency have worked on a joint regulatory proposal to set the first tailpipe emissions limits in tandem with a boost in fuel-efficiency standards through the 2016 model year.

Automakers signed on to a deal in May to set requirements that largely mirror what California and 12 other states had proposed. The agencies must issue a final regulation by March 30.

For more than 10 months, the agency has been run by an acting administrator, Ron Medford.

Obama ran into trouble in nominating Hurley, who was CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Some environmentalists criticized his work at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the early 1990s, when he sided with automakers over the safety implications of downsizing vehicles to increase fuel efficiency.

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