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New NHTSA boss lays out agenda

Runge prepared to make rules - sometimes

WASHINGTON - In his first meeting with reporters, Dr. Jeffrey Runge displayed commitment, wit, charm - and at least a working grasp of the tough issues he'll be tackling as the government's new vehicle and traffic safety boss.

Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for just three weeks, said, for example, that the agency soon will propose tougher standards for vehicle roofs so they don't collapse in rollover crashes.

On the other hand, he said he's not yet inclined to use agency rule-making power to deal with the volatile subject of driver distraction, caused by the expanding array of electronic devices and displays. "The role to regulate, I don't think we want to go there, yet, until we see some more compelling evidence," Runge said.

Nominated by President Bush to head NHTSA, he was confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 3 as the agency's 12th administrator.

How to measure him

Perhaps the greater significance of the brief Tuesday, Aug. 28, meeting was this: Runge established some benchmarks against which his performance in coming months, perhaps years, can be judged. He said:

  • He intends to reduce the "body count" on the highways.

  • He considers himself a pro-business public official, but he is willing to impose more and tougher regulations on the automobile industry when necessary.

    "If I err, it will be on the side of safety," said the 45-year-old emergency room doctor and medical researcher from Charlotte, N.C.

    He disputed a widespread industry belief that regulation of motor vehicles has reached a plateau and that most government effort should be concentrated on human factors.

    "I'm not convinced that we have reached the pinnacle in terms of regulations for vehicle manufacturers," he said.

    n He wants to learn from his predecessors and others but intends to be his own man.The last goal may be the toughest. He's working for a Democratic transportation secretary, Norm Mineta, in a Republican administration and with a divided Congress that increasingly tries to manage the federal government's narrow but high-profile responsibilities for motor vehicle safety.

    Treating a 'disease'

    Like other NHTSA administrators, Runge is seeking to balance the agency's multiple roles.

    Those roles include regulating vehicle design, investigating safety defects, directing the government's fuel economy program and managing efforts to improve driver performance and occupant behavior, such as wearing seat belts and putting children in back seats.

    And he has mounted its bully pulpit.

    If there were a new disease killing 41,000 Americans a year and hospitalizing hundreds of thousands of others, he said, "the world would stop and we would tackle it."

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