WASHINGTON - Dr. Ricardo Martinez, who tried to transfuse medical expertise into automobile safety regulation, is calling on car companies to put physicians in their engineering and design shops.
Martinez said each manufacturer should appoint a chief medical officer, not just a medical advisory board. He said it would be the one big step that already safety-conscious automakers could take to improve the prognosis for customers who may be in crashes.
'We want to institutionalize the link between medical and engineering research,' Martinez said in an interview marking his departure as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
After more than five years in the job, Martinez left Friday, Oct. 15, for a private sector position, as vice president of health affairs for Web MD, an Atlanta-based Internet health-care company.
Early in his tenure at NHTSA, Martinez said he suggested to automotive executives that they bring doctors into the vehicle design process but got no takers.
He said he hopes the industry's increased interest in safety will prompt executives to be more receptive to his call for chief medical officers.
Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said Martinez already has succeeded in improving dialogue between the medical and engineering communities, in part by encouraging industry-funded research at trauma centers.
'The message has been delivered - medical and technical people need to talk,' he said. But Wilber, an engineer, also said, 'It would be difficult to integrate (doctors) into the automotive environment.'
WHO WILL BE NEXT?
Although Friday was his last day on the job, Martinez said 'the crystal ball is pretty cloudy' about who his successor will be. But he said he repositioned NHTSA, making it less of a Washington regulatory institution and more of a national resource that engages people to care about safety. And he said, 'It's pretty hard to pull back from that.'
In addition, the agency has a new generation of managers, 'raised in this environment' and ready to carry it forward, he said.
Some outsiders interpret the upper-echelon turnover as a loss of experience, and they complain that few of the new top officials have engineering backgrounds.
'It is a real worry,' Martinez acknowledged. He said it has been difficult to recruit engineers because they can earn much more elsewhere.
Finally, he responded to Ralph Nader, who told Automotive News two weeks ago that Martinez should leave because he has completed the job of turning NHTSA into a consulting firm for the automobile industry.
'I have little tolerance for those who just stand by and criticize,' Martinez said. 'I can't think of anything he (Nader) has done to help the agency.'