Finding a permanent chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probably isn't at the top of President Bush's to-do list these days. But given the safety agency's long and vital agenda, the White House should not allow the vacancy to persist much longer.
Before he left for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this summer, Dr. Jeffrey Runge displayed clout and credibility as NHTSA's chief. The former emergency room physician got a lot done. But the agency has yet to approve new regulations for roof crush, side-impact protection and truck fuel economy. It also must set standards for electronic stability control. All are urgent matters that require strong leadership.
The NHTSA administrator manages a $700 million annual budget and 600 employees. The agency handles vehicle recalls and investigates safety defects.
Acting Administrator Jacqueline Glassman, whom Runge hired and promoted, says she plans to pursue her predecessor's agenda. But any official whose title is preceded by "interim" has limited authority. Moreover, some consumer activists question Glassman's objectivity as a regulator, noting her previous work as a lawyer for DaimlerChrysler. And Glassman says she doesn't want the permanent job anyway.
President Bush should name a talented, experienced full-time NHTSA administrator who can win prompt Senate confirmation. The job may not have the public visibility of, say, a Supreme Court selection. But with 42,000 Americans killed in car crashes each year, the quality of leadership provided by the nation's chief motor vehicle safety regulator is, literally, a matter of life and death.