The White House has named David Kelly to be acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, replacing Nicole Nason, who is leaving for an as yet undisclosed job in the private sector.
Kelly was previously chief of staff to Nason, who leaves after serving a little more than two years as head of the government's primary auto safety agency. Before joining NHTSA, Kelly was with the National Safety Council, serving as a program manager and director of the NSC's air bag and seat belt safety campaign.
Kelly will have at least two big issues to resolve as the Bush Administration winds down in the coming months.
The first is a proposed 4.5 percent annual increase in fuel efficiency standards for the 2011 through 2015 model years. NHTSA issued the proposal in April. Automakers have called the proposed increases too ambitious, but many members of Congress have said they don't go far enough.
NHTSA must also complete work on toughening automobile roof crush standards by October 1, a set of rules that has not been revised since 1973.
Nason, who was a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. before joining the government, has had an uneven tenure as head of the auto safety agency.
Under Nason, the agency adopted new regulations to improve child seat ratings and to require seat belts on some smaller school buses. The agency also recalled hundreds of thousands of Chinese tires over concerns the steel belts could separate and cause a crash.
In addition, the agency strengthened its new car crash test standards during Nason's tenure. Before the changes most vehicles were able to achieve top ratings, which critics say rendered the test results all but useless for consumers.
But Nason was also responsible for a bizarre policy that effectively forbade anyone at the agency to talk to the media on the record except herself, including the NHTSA Office of Communications. Because of that policy, many of the government's leading auto safety experts have been unable to talk directly to the media on issues within their area of expertise.
David Champion, Senior Director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, says he hopes the new NHTSA director will keep "the safety of the American motorist foremost and understands vehicle dynamics."
"Cars are a huge compromise," says Champion. "You change one aspect and it can reduce other factors." For example, he said, "With the push for a stronger roof crush standard, we do not want manufacturers to design bigger and wider roof pillars as this will compromise visibility, reducing safety in everyday driving. Currently there is no visibility standard."
Read more about car safety on our Cars blog.