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Former Calif. regulator tapped to run highway safety agency

A former California pollution regulator is being nominated to run the nation's highway safety agency.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced his intention to nominate Steven Cliff, who has served as deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since February, to become the agency's administrator.

If confirmed by the Senate Cliff would take over the agency at a crucial juncture. Highway deaths are rising, battery electric vehicles are upending the auto industry, and vehicle automation is spreading into more models.

NHTSA, which sets vehicle safety standards and finds safety defects and manages recalls, has been without a confirmed administrator since Mark Rosekind left at the end of 2016. Auto safety advocates have been calling on Biden to make a nomination so a confirmed administrator can start moving on a safety agenda.

The announcement comes three days after The Associated Press reported that the agency is struggling with a growing backlog of safety rules ordered by Congress that are years overdue and could save thousands of lives. An AP review of rule-making by NHTSA under the last three presidents found at least 13 auto safety rules past due, including a rear seat belt reminder requirement passed by Congress in 2012 that was to be implemented by 2015.

The pending safety rules have been slowed by bureaucracy or taken a back seat to other priorities. President Donald Trump sidetracked at least four major road safety proposals that were in development during his term.

An estimated 38,680 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2020, the most since 2007, even though total miles driven dropped at the beginning of the pandemic. In the first three months of 2021, 8,730 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes, a 10.5% increase from the same period last year.

Last year, over half of all crash fatalities involved unbelted drivers or occupants, the highest level since 2012, according to NHTSA.

Over 800 people who were unbelted in the back seat die each year in car crashes. An analysis of NHTSA’s data by a state governors’ safety group found that wearing seat belts would have saved over half of them.

Cliff joined NHTSA shortly after Biden's inauguration. Before joining the agency, he was deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board, which regulates pollution in the state. He has held a number of positions with the agency and the California Department of Transportation, where he was assistant director for sustainability.

While he was deputy NHTSA administrator, the agency has grown more aggressive in regulating the auto industry. It has required that automakers and tech companies report crashes involving autonomous or partially automated driving systems. It also has forced electric vehicle sales leader Tesla Inc. to recall cars to fix touch screens that go blank, and it opened an investigation into Tesla's Autopilot partially automated driver-assist system due to crashes into parked emergency vehicles.