Nominee for NHTSA chief vows to tighten vehicle seat standards

Nominee for NHTSA chief vows to tighten vehicle seat standards

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The Biden Administration’s nominee to be the nation’s top auto safety regulator pledged to “prioritize” replacing the outdated federal strength standard for vehicle seats that’s been the focus of a six-year CBS News investigation.

“CBS put a spotlight on this problem,” Senator Ed Markey (D–Mass.), said while questioning Dr. Steven Cliff, who’s been tapped to be the next National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator.  “I think it’s important for us to get it done put safety first once and for all.”

Cliff responded during his confirmation hearing Thursday, “If confirmed, I will prioritize the leadership you’ve provided to advance rulemaking.”

Senator Markey and Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, also a Democrat, co-authorized legislation mandating NHTSA to replace the regulation CBS News found was so low a banquet chair could pass. Congresswoman Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) led the effort in the House.

Dr. Steven Cliff in undated photo provided by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

The measure was included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law in November.

“We look forward to prioritizing the instruction that’s given to us in the law,” Cliff testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. 

In a series of stories that began airing in 2015, CBS News revealed that when hit from behind, car front seats may break and their occupants can be propelled – forcefully – into the rear seats where children usually sit.

CBS News identified more than 100 people, mostly children, who were severely injured or killed in alleged seatback failures over the past 30 years.

Safety advocates estimate at least 50 children a year die in such crashes and the number is likely higher: In 2016, then-NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind acknowledged that such crashes were not closely tracked. 

Senator Markey told CBS News he had raised the issue with Cliff prior to the hearing — a conversation Cliff testified was “very illuminating.”

To meet its congressional mandate, NHTSA has two years to draft a new strength standard for vehicle seats, which will be subject to the approval of the Secretary of Transportation. 

“We need NHTSA to move quickly to pass the regulation so the auto industry changes its practices,” Markey told CBS News. “I’m convinced this NHTSA is going to pass regulations that is going to provide safety to children in the backseat of cars.”

Kris Van Cleave

Kris Van Cleave is a congressional correspondent for CBS News based in Washington, D.C.

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