Correction to This Article
A headline in Thursday's Business section incorrectly stated that National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator-designate Nicole Nason fought past agency proposals. The story below has been corrected.

Bush Names Choice To Head Traffic Safety

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006

President Bush said he intends to appoint Nicole R. Nason as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which faces substantial tasks in the year ahead, including tightening fuel-economy requirements for pickup trucks and SUVs.

Nason, 35, is now assistant secretary of transportation for governmental affairs. She also held a high-level job in the U.S. Customs Service and was communications director and counsel for CIA Director Porter J. Goss when he was a Republican congressman from Florida. It was not immediately clear what course Nason might chart for the agency. A White House spokeswoman said Nason is declining interviews and will likely lay out her plans during Senate confirmation testimony.

The previous administrator, Jeffrey W. Runge, used the job to push automakers to improve the safety of sport-utility vehicles. He also focused on curbing drunken driving and promoted the use of seat belts. Runge left NHTSA in September to become the chief medical officer at the Homeland Security Department.

NHTSA has a lot on its agenda this year. The agency is working to complete new fuel economy rules for pickups, SUVs and minivans by April. As gasoline prices have risen, U.S. drivers have demanded vehicles with greater fuel economy.

Nason, as assistant secretary of transportation, acted primarily as a lobbyist for the Bush administration in opposing safety proposals that the agency now has the responsibility to enforce, said Joan Claybrook of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Claybrook headed NHTSA during the Carter administration.

Robert Johnson, director of public affairs for the Transportation Department, which oversees NHTSA, said Nason has supported auto safety issues, including strengthening safety belt laws and pushing for more grant money for programs combating drunken driving. He also said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta believes that Nason did a "great job representing him and his safety agenda on the Hill."

NHTSA is required to issue a number of safety rules, Claybrook said, including tougher standards for vehicle roof strength and mandates to reduce the risk of vehicle rollovers. NHTSA is also working on rules that would require automakers to build vehicles that better protect occupants in side-impact crashes.

Claybrook said 9,000 people die annually in side-impact crashes and 10,000 die in rollover crashes. Claybrook called NHTSA's plan for new rules on roof strength a "lousy proposal" because 80 percent of vehicles on the road already comply with the tougher standards.

David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, is also critical of the agency. Champion said NHTSA's new-car crash-testing program needs to be updated. He said most vehicles get four- or five-star ratings in the agency's tests. "It doesn't discriminate between good vehicles and bad vehicles," he said.

Champion said the country needs a national strategy to combat the high rates of teen-driver deaths. He said more states need additional driver training and more restrictions for teen drivers, particularly males.

He said NHTSA suffers from "inertia" and an unwillingness to "push the envelope in some ways" in vehicles safety.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company