Most Washington regulators are not eager to express personal opinions, much less to publicly criticize the industry they regulate.
Jeffrey W. Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, did both on Tuesday. Speaking to an automotive group in Detroit, he cited statistics that the fatality rate in rollover accidents is three times as high in sport-utility vehicles as in passenger cars and called on the industry to address the issue.
In remarks to reporters afterward, he warned that people shouldn't assume that vehicles are safe just because they are large. He said he wouldn't drive SUVs that scored low in the government's rollover safety ratings. "I wouldn't let my kid buy a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on earth," he told the Detroit Free Press.
Outspokenness isn't usually a virtue in the nation's capital. In the case of former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill, off-the-cuff remarks about Wall Street earned a ticket back to Pittsburgh, where O'Neill was head of Alcoa Inc. before he came to Washington. Similarly, Harvey L. Pitt, outgoing chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had to change his tune about creating a kinder, gentler regulatory environment for accountants after the Enron scandal broke and he was accused of being a reluctant regulator.
"Regulators at this level ordinarily don't put their views on display. They don't want their views to become the issue. If they have a message, they deliver it in a tried and true traditional way," said Sally Katzen, who ran the Office of Management and Budget's regulatory review office in the Clinton administration.
So auto industry and safety groups buzzed yesterday with speculation about whether Runge's straightforward remarks, prominently reported in the Wall Street Journal, would earn him a badge of honor or a reprimand.
Runge declined to be interviewed about his comments at the Automotive News World Congress.
Leonardo Alcivar, a Transportation Department spokesman, said Runge is "a passionate advocate for passenger safety." Runge's remarks were simply aimed at ensuring that consumers "understand they need to take a hard look at all the safety data that is available," he added.
"He's been saying these things since he got here," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for NHTSA. "He said his piece."
Runge was an emergency-room physician for 20 years in Charlotte before he took the NHTSA job in August 2001. He has said his experience as a doctor has shaped his vision of highway safety. And in earlier interviews, he has recalled the trauma some patients have suffered after accidents with SUVs.
"Dr. Runge gets his understanding from the bedside of the public," said Ricardo Martinez, who was NHTSA administrator in the Clinton administration and was also an emergency-room physician. "He gets the mission of the agency -- to decrease deaths and injuries."
Tyson said the agency has grown increasingly concerned about the safety of SUVs and, as far back as 1998, called auto industry executives together to encourage them to make the vehicles less dangerous, particularly in crashes with cars. The agency is about to issue a rule that will mandate that automakers do road tests to gauge the propensity of SUVs to roll over. At present, the agency uses a mathematical calculation to judge rollover risk and publishes the results for consumers.
In his written remarks, Runge has consistently encouraged seat-belt use and the development of strategies to combat drunken driving.
The Detroit speech, written in advance, was a long compendium of facts and figures, including the observation that single-vehicle rollovers increased 22.3 percent last year, accounting for 8,400 fatalities.
The press accounts of the speech and the interviews that Runge gave afterward roiled the auto industry, which makes hefty profits from the sales of SUVs. "He's still fairly new to the position . . . of being administrator of the agency. It's easy to get out ahead of the data," said Josephine S. Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "I think we're perplexed and disappointed that those comments came out the way they did. We believe SUVs are very safe vehicles."
One auto company official in Washington said he expects some industry chief executives to call to complain that Runge went too far. "Runge likes to fire people up. He's a true safety devotee."
Consumer groups applauded Runge for his honesty and refreshing candor. "His comments are exactly what the NHTSA administrator should be saying -- safety over sales," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader. "He's questioning the safety of SUVs and, up to now, they've been a sacred cow."