Biden's Pick to Head Traffic Safety Vows to Reduce Deaths as Old Rules Wait to Be Enacted

President Joe Biden's nominee to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has pledged to reduce the uptick in car crashes around the country.

Steven Cliff has been serving as the agency's deputy administrator since February. However, he could be its first real leader since 2016. While speaking at his confirmation hearing for his official appointment, he reiterated his commitment to reducing the staggering amount of car crashes that have occurred over the past year.

"I am committed to turning this around," he said of the trend. Cliff added that the United States has to "change a culture that accepts the loss of tens of thousands of people in roadway crashes as inevitable."

The appointment hearing comes as the NHTSA continues to struggle with a backlog of Congress-ordered safety rules, which include implementing technology that could prevent drunk driving. This backup is one of the reasons why advocates have been pushing for an official administrator of the agency.

Around 38,680 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2020, despite the total miles driven initially dropping at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first three months of 2021 saw 8,730 people dying in vehicle crashes.

Cliff also aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by rewriting vehicle fuel economy standards, as well as put regulations on Tesla's Autopilot driver-assist program. The NHTSA is currently looking into a claim that said this program almost crashed while driving.

"I want to make clear that no vehicle that is available for purchase today is capable of driving itself. There's nothing that can replace a fully attentive driver in vehicles today," said Cliff.

Car Crash
Steven Cliff, President Joe Biden's pick to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said during a hearing that he is committed to helping reduce vehicle crashes on American roads. Here, crews are seen after a firetruck collided with a car and caused a building collapse the night before in Kansas City, Missouri. Rich Sugg /The Kansas City Star via AP

Cliff said the infrastructure law will help by increasing NHTSA's budget by 50 percent, with money used to boost staffing and improve U.S. data collection to understand where and how crashes happen.

An AP review of rule-making by NHTSA under the last three presidents found at least 13 auto safety rules past due, including a rear seat belt reminder requirement passed by Congress in 2012 that was to be implemented by 2015.

Cliff is expected to get broad support from the committee but faces delays in final confirmation, along with a number of other Transportation Department nominees. Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, has said he will hold all Transportation and Commerce nominees until he receives more information from the Biden administration on efforts to fix delays in the U.S. supply chain. A "hold" prevents a motion from moving to the Senate floor and typically must be overcome with 60 votes, a time-consuming process.

Cliff on Thursday suggested the Tesla probe could take months and declined to say what enforcement actions might be taken. But in a likely warning shot to its CEO, Elon Musk, Cliff stressed that the agency won't allow safety to be lost in the name of innovation. In recent months, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, has been critical of Tesla, saying its description of "Full Self-Driving" for its latest driver-assist system was misleading and urging NHTSA to take action.

Tesla is allowing owners to test the Autopilot software on public roads. And NHTSA is investigating why Teslas using the company's Autopilot system have crashed into parked emergency vehicles even though their warning lights are flashing.

A message was left Thursday seeking comment from Tesla, which has disbanded its media relations department. Tesla has said in the past that neither "Full Self-Driving" nor Autopilot are fully autonomous and that drivers must be ready to intervene at all times. Musk said in January that he expected the "Full Self-Driving" system to drive more reliably than humans this year.

NHTSA sets vehicle safety standards, finds safety defects, manages recalls and helps to develop government fuel economy requirements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Louisiana Roads and Highways
During a hearing, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration director nominee Steven Cliff said the U.S. need to "change a culture that accepts the loss of tens of thousands of people in roadway crashes as inevitable." The Louisiana Highway 1 Bridge, also known as the Gateway to the Gulf Expressway, rises above the marshland and coastal waters on August 25, 2019 in Leeville, Louisiana. Drew Angerer/Getty Images