Dr. Jeffrey Runge steps down next month as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Bush administration must not waste any time in appointing his successor. There are too many important issues facing the industry to put the agency in the hands of a caretaker.
NHTSA's punch list includes formulating roof-crush regulation, forging a new side-impact standard, limiting rollover dangers, reducing the risk of occupant ejection and improving front-impact crash testing.
Runge may unveil measures addressing some of these issues before he leaves, but his successor will need to see any initiatives through to completion.
The new safety chief must have a passion and a vision for saving lives, especially through improvements in crash avoidance. She or he doesn't need to be a physician, although William Haddon, the agency's first head, was one. And recent NHTSA administrators - Runge and Dr. Ricardo Martinez- brought strength and dedication to the job derived from their emergency room experience.
Also required is an aptitude for dealing with advanced technology. Both Martinez and Runge said developments are occurring almost too fast for the regulatory machinery to keep up.
There also needs to be a strong interest in dealing with
behavioral issues. The big safety gains involving vehicles already have been made, and changing driver and occupant behavior holds the most promise for new gains in saving lives.
Because 300 million Americans deserve an impartial advocate, the new safety chief must not be a political aspirant, auto industry insider or member of the plaintiff's bar.
The White House must find another strong leader for
NHTSA quickly because there can be no lull in the campaign to save lives on U.S. highways.