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National Highway Transportation Safety Administration
Mission | History | Who's in Charge

Tuesday, April 2, 2002


NHTSA, part of the Department of Transportation, is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. NHTSA sets and enforces safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, including child car seats and air bags. (Another federal agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, takes the lead on car seats when they fail outside the car, such as when carrier handles give way.) The agency also sets and enforces fuel economy standards.


In 1966, after decades of rising traffic fatalities, the publication of Ralph Nadar's "Unsafe at Any Speed" and increasing public outcry for safer automobiles, Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings on creating a regulatory agency for traffic safety. Among the witnesses was William Haddon, an epidemiologist who introduced the idea that traffic accidents could be analyzed scientifically and injuries reduced by changing auto design, such as installing collapsible steering columns, safety glass, head rests and seat belts.

Congress passed the Highway Safety Act of 1966 creating the National Highway Safety Bureau, with Haddon as its first administrator. The bureau became NHTSA in 1970 under the newly established Department of Transportation. An early Nadar convert, Joan Claybrook, headed NHTSA under President Carter and now runs Nadar's organization, Public Citizen.

Key Issues:

NHTSA is completing a high-profile investigation into more than 200 deaths linked to problems with Firestone tires mounted on Ford Motor Co. Explorers. The probe could affect the reputations of both Firestone and Ford, which parted ways after nearly a century as partners because of fallout from the tire deaths investigations. In June, At the urging of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), NHTSA is evaluating whether a Ford decision to replace 13 million Firestone tires on its vehicles will cause even more safety issues.

Who's in Charge:

President Bush has announced his intent to nominate Jeffrey W. Runge, a physician from North Carolina trained in emergency-room medicine, to be the NHTSA administrator. The jobs of assistant administrator and chief counsel are also politically appointed, but Bush has yet to announce his candidates.

On the Web:

Crash test information by vehicle type or model
• Child safety seat recalls by manufacturer
Rollover resistance ratings information with a link to vehicle ratings by model