Dr. Jeffrey Runge steps down next month as NHTSA's boss. A predecessor says the agency needs a leader who will maintain its momentum.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge will leave NHTSA's top post next month. He was named last week to the new position of chief medical officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Runge, 49, has been the nation's chief regulator of vehicle safety since August 2001. Supporters credit him with focusing NHTSA on clear priorities with the highest potential for improving safety.
"The natural instinct would be to get someone who's just going to be a caretaker or risk-averse," warns Dr. Ricardo Martinez, who led NHTSA from 1994 to 1999. "In this case it would be missed opportunity."
Martinez, who is on the medical faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, applauds Runge's record. He says NHTSA needs an administrator who will maintain the momentum it has built.
Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says it is early enough in Bush's second term to find a NHTSA chief who wants "to make a big difference."
But Stone says an acting administrator likely will fill the job for an extended period. That's another reason, she argues, for Congress to enact pending legislation that would require NHTSA to adopt safety rules by specific dates.
Stone's coalition of consumer and safety groups and insurers sometimes differed with Runge. But, she says, "We always felt like we could talk with Jeff."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers credits Runge with "wanting to base regulations on sound science," spokesman Eron Shosteck says. The alliance represents the Big 3 and six import-brand automakers.
Runge's boss, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, says the NHTSA chief's work has contributed to the lowest highway death rate and highest rate of seat belt use in history.
Says Mineta: "We are all a little bit safer because of his dedication."
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