U.S. ‘close’ to naming NHTSA chief

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says the Obama administration is close to deciding on a permanent chief to run the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In a brief Detroit News interview Monday, Foxx said he expected an announcement “soon.” He didn’t say if the administration is planning to name Deputy Administrator David Friedman to the top job.

“This is the president’s call and I think we’re real close,” Foxx said after making remarks at a distracted driving event. “We’ve been working on this for a while. I think we’re very close but I don’t want to get in front of the president.” Foxx said in a separate interview in early September that the administration had been working to fill the NHTSA job.

Obama faces other nominations to make — including picking a new attorney general and new deputy attorney general. In a separate interview, Friedman declined to say if he is under consideration for the job. “We’ll circle back to you,” Friedman said. “You heard from the secretary.”

Friedman — a former top official with the Union of Concerned Scientists who became deputy NHTSA administrator in 2013 — was named acting chief in January after then NHTSA chief David Strickland departed to join a Washington law firm. Friedman’s maximum 210 days running the office on a temporary basis expired. He is still the top official at NHTSA though he no longer holds the title as acting chief.

Friedman defended NHTSA under scrutiny from a Senate Commerce Committee panel in September.

Last month, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., urged the White House to make filling the NHTSA administrator job a priority.

"While I believe Mr. Friedman has done a good job of running the agency on an interim basis since the last Senate-confirmed administrator stepped down in January, I would urge the White House to make filling the vacancy for the nation's top highway and auto safety official a priority. Especially as the agency evaluates its personnel and financial resource needs, and continues to work to modernize in order to keep pace with an auto industry far more technologically advanced that it, NHTSA needs an administrator and a deputy administrator — not one person doing both jobs," McCaskill said.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., also said in September the White House should move quickly to fill the job.

"I am also concerned the president has not filled the vacancy for the position of administrator at NHTSA. The task of addressing any shortcomings at the agency and implementing any necessary improvements may be challenging for a deputy administrator without the endorsement of the president's nomination and the Senate's confirmation," Heller said.

The Obama administration left the job of NHTSA administrator open for eight months after its first nominee in 2009 withdrew under pressure from environmentalists. It finally settled on Strickland, a Senate Commerce Committee lawyer.