WASHINGTON (Aug. 30, 2001) — Dr. Jeffrey Runge describes himself as a pro-business public official but says he won't hesitate to impose more and tougher regulations on the automobile industry when necessary.
“If I err, it will be on the side of safety,” said the newly installed administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In fact, Dr. Runge, in his first meeting with automotive reporters Aug. 28, said a proposal for tougher standards to prevent vehicle roofs from collapsing in rollover crashes will be unveiled soon.
On the other hand, Dr. Runge said he is not committed to using the agency's regulatory power to limit the electronic information and entertainment devices that suppliers and auto makers are rushing to install on motor vehicles.
“The role to regulate, I don't think we want to go there yet, until we see some more compelling evidence,” said the 45-year-old emergency room physician and medical researcher. Nominated by President Bush to head NHTSA, he was confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 3.
Dr. Runge said that NHTSA is watching closely the growing issue of driver distraction but said that it is every motorist's responsibility to avoid distractions.
“That is not to say people who manufacture those potentially distracting articles also don't have a corporate responsibility to help judge their distraction potential. I believe that they do. It's a conjoined effort that we all have,” he said.
Like all NHTSA administrators, Dr. Runge is seeking to balance the agency's multiple roles, which include regulating vehicle design, investigating safety defects, directing the government's fuel economy program and managing efforts to improve driver performance and occupant behavior — such as wearing seat belts and putting children in back seats.
And like some predecessors, he also appears intent on using his office as a bully pulpit to convince the public that traffic deaths and injuries are a preventable and controllable “disease.”
If there were a new disease killing 41,000 Americans a year and injuring hundreds of thousands of others, he said, “the world would stop and we would tackle it.”
He disputed a widespread industry belief that government regulation of motor vehicles has reached a plateau and that far more can be gained by concentrating on the so-called human factors.
“I'm not convinced that we have reached the pinnacle in terms of regulations for vehicle manufacturers,” he said.
While he addressed several matters facing the automotive industry, the new NHTSA administrator wouldn't talk about enforcement issues —such as tire recalls— in this first meeting with reporters.
Harry Stoffer writes for Automotive News, a siser publication of Tire Business.