WASHINGTON - The unexpected departure of Dr. Ricardo Martinez from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration means safety regulation will be in the hands of managers who either just arrived at NHTSA or who recently got new assignments there.
The leadership upheaval comes at a time when NHTSA faces tough questions:
How will advanced airbags be regulated and tested?
Will trucks get rollover ratings?
Does industry self-regulation of side airbags work?
Martinez, 44, will step down as NHTSA administrator Oct. 15 after more than five years on the job. The former emergency room physician is taking a position with an Atlanta-based Internet health care company that he would not identify.
Martinez's tenure probably will be remembered most for agency responses to the airbag crisis that unfolded in 1996-97.
`A HUMAN FACE'
He said his chief accomplishments were to shift the debate from regulations and statistics to human beings - to 'put a human face' on traffic crash victims - and to get the public more involved in safety issues.
The power is likely to fall to Rosalyn Millman, 36, an economist and former congressional staff member, who just last week was named NHTSA deputy administrator by the Clinton administration. She is expected to be named acting administrator, perhaps for the balance of Clinton's term.
Other top agency officials got new assignments last month after longtime Executive Director Don Bischoff retired. Associate Administrator Robert Shelton became executive director, and Steve Kratzke, director of crash avoidance standards, became acting associate administrator.
'We hope this will not signal a slowing of the decision-making process,' said Jo Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. 'Our concern is that we continue the progress and not reverse the advances we have made,' particularly on reducing risks from airbag deployments.
Automakers last month made a direct appeal to Martinez, asking that the agency not insist on reviving a crash test that they say requires overly powerful airbags.
The alliance believes Martinez leaves 'a substantial legacy of progress,' primarily in protecting children in motor vehicles and improving public awareness of safety issues, Cooper said.
Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of safety groups, said Martinez was a successful administrator, but added that she favors a return to stricter regulation of automakers.
'He did the best he could at balancing the two parts of the agency,' she said, referring to NHTSA's public education and industry regulation roles.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, however, applauded Martinez's departure. Said Nader: 'He's completed his job of turning NHTSA into a consulting firm for the auto industry.'