Trump nominates interim NHTSA chief to lead agency

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Fifteen months after taking office, President Donald Trump has nominated a person to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Heidi King is the nominee for administrator of the nation’s highway safety agency, a position that’s been vacant since the president took office. King, who currently is deputy NHTSA administrator, has been the agency’s interim chief since September 2017.

The Trump administration has been criticized by safety and consumer advocates for leaving the position vacant. Trump has yet to make numerous appointments in the government, but the year-plus vacancy at NHTSA was particularly galling to safety groups in Washington.

Prior to coming to NHTSA, King worked in the private sector as global director of environmental health and safety risk at GE Capital. King also was chief economist for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce from 2011 to 2013, and she worked as a regulatory policy analyst in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget under former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The White House said King “is experienced in traffic safety and emergency response after serving as a California State Park Ranger and as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician.”

King’s nomination will have to be approved by the U.S. Senate.

If she is confirmed, King is expected to play a major role in crafting new gas-mileage rules for automakers after the Trump administration’s recent decision to ease standards for the model years between 2022-2025 that were put in place by the Barack Obama administration. Under the Obama-era mileage rules, automakers would have been required to produce fleets of cars and trucks that averaged more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said this week those requirements were “inappropriate” and need to be revised. NHTSA said it will continue to work with the EPA to set new requirements for the time period between the 2022 and 2025 model years. No mileage target has been announced by the EPA or NHTSA.

California officials have vowed to fight any attempt to supersede tougher standards in that state, which can set its own environmental standards under a waiver included in the 1970 Clean Air Act. A dozen other states have adopted California’s rules, accounting for a third of the nation’s auto market.

NHTSA, which is operated as part of the the U.S. Department of Transportation, will also play a big role in crafting rules for self-driving cars. The Trump administration is working on its second set of voluntary guidelines for self-driving cars, which would be the third set of recommendations that the transportation department has issued since 2016.

John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group, said he is taking a wait-and-see approach to King’s nomination, although he has been a frequent critic of the Trump administration’s approach to auto regulation.

“I know nothing about Ms. King’s qualifications or background. I look forward to learning more at her confirmation hearing,” Simpson said. “The lateness of her nomination — more than a year into Trump’s term — shows what little concern the administration has for meaningful safety regulations.”

King has told lawmakers previously that the Trump administration is committed to auto safety, telling lawmakers during February testimony that “NHTSA is acting on its mission of saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing economic costs.

“As the automotive transportation landscape is changing at a rapid pace, NHTSA is adapting our mission execution to assure safety while remaining in step with changing technology, addressing new and emerging risks, and encouraging industry innovation,” she said then.

King also would be tasked with overseeing the continuing recall of more than 50 million Takata air bag inflators that can explode with too much force and throw shrapnel at drivers and passengers. The faulty air bags have been linked to at least 13 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the United States. Worldwide, 22 have died.

NHTSA says only 22.3 million of the 50 million air bags recalled by March 2 have been repaired in the largest auto safety related callback in U.S. history.

The defective safety devices from the now-bankrupt Japanese auto supplier were used in 37 million cars, and the problem is expected to grow. Another 20 million faulty air bags in newer cars are expected to be added to the recall lists in the next couple of years.

King was grilled about NHTSA’s readiness to handle future large-scale auto safety recalls during a recent U.S. House hearing.

“There are legit concerns that NHTSA is not prepared and is not keeping up with the quickly changing automotive industry,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said to her in February. “It’s troubling that NHTSA doesn’t have the resources, people or expertise it needs to fulfill its mandate.”

King responded then that “safety is, safety remains the Department of Transportation’s top priority.”

King did not comment on her appointment to the full-term NHTSA chief position.

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing