First automotive job: In 1966, I went to work on a five-month fellowship for Rep. James Mackay, a Democrat from Georgia. He said all these kids are being killed in his neighborhood, and he wanted to do something about it. He read Unsafe at Any Speed, and he asked me to talk to Ralph Nader.
I helped draft the first auto safety regulatory bill, which the congressman sponsored. It created NHTSA, and portions of it ended up in the final law.
For the next five months of my fellowship, I worked for Sen. Walter Mondale on the Senate version of the bill. It was the first bill in which crashworthiness standards emerged, and auto recalls were required to be public.
Proudest professional achievement: The 20-year battle to get airbags in cars.
When I became head of NHTSA in 1977, Transportation Secretary Brock Adams asked me to draft an airbag rule. We recrafted a 1971 rule that had been deferred by President Nixon. To go into effect, the rule had to survive the potential of a congressional veto. I spent months on Capitol Hill trying to overcome industry opposition, and eventually we succeeded.
In 1981, President Reagan revoked the airbag rule. A lawsuit was filed by State Farm Insurance and consumer groups, with whom I worked, and the case went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ordered the Reagan administration to reissue the rule.
By this time, I was president of Public Citizen, which Ralph Nader founded. The two of us worked with Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole in trying to craft an airbag rule that would be approved by the Reagan White House, which it eventually was.
Now airbags are saving 3,000 lives a year in the U.S.
Current challenge at work: Getting the auto safety bill passed by Congress. The key provisions we're pushing: increased NHTSA funding, tougher penalties for automakers and more stringent standards stemming from the Toyota sudden-acceleration recalls.
What you do to relax: I tend to my small plant and flower garden and cook wholesome food like fresh veggies and fish for dinner parties. I also go to the movies and to the beach.
— Neil Roland