New federal traffic safety chief faces daunting to-do list

Deb Price / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Nicole Nason recently took over as chief of the powerful National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, her dad gave her two gifts.

The first was a motorcycle helmet that saved his skull -- and probably his life -- when he was thrown from the Harley he rode as a Long Island, N.Y., highway cop. The second was a photo of the bashed-in Pontiac Catalina he and Nason's mom walked away from without serious injuries after being hit by a drunken driver in 1979.

"He said, 'Don't get distracted by other things. You have a short term there -- 2 1/2 years left in the administration. This is what you are working on,' " Nason said in an interview with The Detroit News.

The gifts -- and the advice -- provide a window into the mindset of the new leader of NHTSA, an octopus of an agency with authority over such things as setting minimum gas mileage standards and vehicle safety regulations, investigating faulty products, and helping states reduce fatalities involving teens, drunken drivers and the elderly. She's seen firsthand how dangerous driving can be -- and how safety products, such as helmets and seat belts, can save a loved one's life.

In her role, the lawyer, who most recently served as President Bush's safety-issues lobbyist on Capitol Hill, will be called on to settle high-stakes conflicts between automakers and safety advocates.

Safety advocate Clarence Ditlow says Nason has taken over at a time of unusual opportunity:

Congress last year laid out a huge safety agenda in its highway bill. And Nason will have a huge say over details that will affect not just everyone with a job tied to the auto industry, but also every driver, passenger and new car buyer.

"Is she going to be more of a caretaker or a real safety leader?" asks Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "The (highway bill) gives her the ability to become one of the top NHTSA administrators of all time. If she takes advantage of it, her legacy could be saving 10,000 lives a year," Ditlow said.

A busy schedule

Nason's first high-profile test comes Oct. 1, when NHTSA must issue its proposed rule for electronic stability control technology to reduce rollovers.

Details that stakeholders will zoom in on include: How much time will automakers be given to meet the standards? Will the rules apply to all new passenger vehicles? Will automakers be protected from rollover-related lawsuits?

And that proposed rollover rule is just the start of a hectic schedule:

  • By November, Nason must report to Congress on advances in technology -- such as cameras or sonar-detection systems -- that can warn drivers while backing up that someone is behind them.

  • By August 2007, she must tell Congress about tire-aging problems.

  • By September 2007, she must move NHTSA's popular five-star rating system, which grades vehicle safety, from the agency's Web site to the window stickers of new cars for sale.

  • By July 2008, she must issue rules governing the roof strength on all passenger vehicles and set standards for beefing up side-impact protection to include technologies such as side curtain air bags.

    "We are going to meet or beat congressional deadlines," said Nason, the 13th NHTSA administrator.

    Some have questioned her qualifications for the job.

    At 35, Nason is the youngest administrator in history with no regulatory or automotive experience. She was chief lobbyist for the Department of Transportation and was "proud to play a role in helping shape" last year's highway safety law, she said.

    Pressures mount

    In another high-stakes issue for the auto industry, she's pushing Congress to expand NHTSA's authority to reform Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for passenger cars based on size, as it already does for light trucks.

    As she works on CAFE, she'll be pressured by environmentalists to do away with the flexible fuel credit, which gives automakers an incentive to make vehicles that run on alternative fuels by reducing their overall required CAFE standards for light trucks.

    "What I would want to make sure of is that we don't issue a rule -- should we get the authority -- that limits the consumers' right to have a bigger car if they want one," Nason said. "But also encourage alternative fuel use."

    Focus on youth

    In addition to following Congress' marching orders, Nason says she'll use her bully pulpit to prod parents to take a more active role in supervising driving-aged kids.

    "I'd like to see parents put vehicle safety at the very top of their 'must discuss' list, because it was always something that we talked about," said Nason, the mother of two young children who adds that her father wouldn't let her drive until she proved she could change a car's oil and tires.

    In addition to having a father who rose from highway patrol to retire as chief of police of Suffolk County, N.Y., Nason has a brother who is an emergency room physician. And being the mother of a 5-year-old and 18-month-old makes her especially interested in child safety seat regulations.

    "I'm very interested in technology. I am a Gen X-er who grew up with technology making my world more comfortable. And I want to see what it can do to make us safer," Nason says.

    Despite Nason's pro-safety talk, some safety advocates have concerns.

    Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a past NHTSA administrator, says Nason begins with a conflict of interest because in her Bush lobbying role she fought the highway bill safety regulations she now must implement.

    "It's a conflict," Claybrook said. "Can she do a fair job? There's a lot of discretion in whether you implement these rules in a weak or robust way."

    Nason also is losing her mentor -- Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta. Nason was an assistant secretary in Mineta's office.

    Will the yet-to-be-announced new head of DOT, which oversees NHTSA, be a Nason backer, often the key to getting anything done.

    Seeing both sides

    Ziad Ojakli, group vice president for corporate affairs at Ford Motor Co., predicts Nason will be an "honest broker" in weighing positions by the auto industry and safety advocates.

    Ojakli, who worked with Nason when he was the White House's Senate lobbyist from 2001-04, said she was widely seen as a rising star because of her energy, affability and problem-solving abilities.

    "She's the kind of person who listens intently to the sides of the debate … and time and time again brought various sides together," Ojakli said.

    Nason says she's eager to learn more about crash avoidance technologies, such as lane departure and blind spot warnings, and about vehicle-to-vehicle communication to avoid collisions.

    "I think we can have tremendous gains in the future," she said.

    "There are lots of things that we could have on cars that can help drivers. Is it up to drivers to wear a seat belt and not be drunk? You bet. But I don't know that we have done all that we can to help make the vehicle safer. So I'm interested in talking to manufacturers about that."

    Does that mean she'd like an invitation for a technology demonstration from Detroit automakers?

    With a smile that clearly signals 'yes,' she replies, "Does it sound like I'm asking for one?"