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NTSB board member to head NHTSA

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Barack Obama is nominating a member of the National Transportation Safety Board to run the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has come under harsh criticism from Congress and safety advocates.

Mark Rosekind, an expert on human fatigue, joined the NTSB in 2010. He has been the on-scene board member for many significant crashes, including an April incident that killed 10 when a FedEx truck slammed into a bus carrying high school students in Northern California.

"Mark has shown tremendous dedication to making our roads safer throughout his career and brings direct experience from the National Transportation Safety Board," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "Mark is a leader ready-made for this critical responsibility and I expect him to hold not only the auto industry accountable, but I also expect him to help us raise the bar on safety ever higher within the U.S. Department of Transportation and among all of our stakeholders."

Deputy NHTSA Adminstrator David Friedman — who has been running the agency since Strickland — praised Rosekind: "Administrator-nominee Mark Rosekind is one of the nation's most respected safety watchdogs across all modes of transportation, and I welcome his keen eye and life-long commitment to safety, and I look forward to working with him."

The agency has been operating for 11 months without a Senate-confirmed administrator after David Strickland left to join a Washington law firm. The nomination comes just a day before the Senate Commerce Committee is set to hold a hearing on the recall of 7.8 million air bags by 10 major automakers. Friedman will testify. On Tuesday, NHTSA urged five major automakers and Takata to expand a recall of driver-side airbags nationally, from a regional campaign.

Automakers have recalled nearly 60 million cars and trucks this year, shattering the all-time record set in 2004 of 30.4 million. Members of Congress have questioned whether the agency has the personnel, resources and expertise necessary to address safety problems, especially as cars get more complex and have more electronics.

The NTSB said Rosekind has advanced the agency's advocacy goals on substance-impaired driving, rail mass transit and fatigue. He pushed states to drop the the blood-alcohol level limit of drivers who are considered legally intoxicated from the current 0.08 to 0.05 — though no state has agreed.

David Kelly, who was an acting NHTSA administrator under President George W. Bush, praised Rosekind. "This is a critical time at NHTSA with so many vehicle safety challenges facing a new administrator. Mark has been very active in behavior safety issues at NTSB which will serve him well at NHTSA as the agency focuses on driving down fatalities," Kelly said.

Last week, Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, Senators Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida, called on Obama to reform NHTSA's safety mission when nominating its new administrator.

Blumenthal urged the Senate to quickly confirm Rosekind. "Dr. Rosekind's nomination is long overdue, and, I hope, will breathe new life into this battered and beleaguered agency," he said.

Sean Kane, a safety advocate who is head of Safety Research and Strategies, said in an interview that NHTSA needs a "new administrator that can clean house and shake things up."

The Governors Highway Safety Association praised the choice of Rosekind.

NHTSA suffered a series of missteps in recent weeks after it warned consumers about a recall of Takata air bags by 10 major automakers. The agency issued a press release misstating what vehicles were covered by air bag recalls and the number of vehicles covered. The following day it issued a new release that also misstated the total number of vehicles covered. And the agency's website suffered a significant outage for nearly a week.

The agency has come under criticism from both parties for its failure to detect problems with General Motors ignition switches for years that are now linked to at least 32 deaths and 35 crashes. NHTSA also was faulted by some members of Congress for not being more aggressive in pushing Toyota Motor Corp. to do more to address sudden unintended acceleration issues that came to public attention in 2009 and 2010.