BrianMcLaughlin tall

February 2015

Q&A with recently retired NHTSA senior associate administrator

MOVE drops in on Brian McLaughlin, a lawyer who recently retired as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s senior associate administrator for Traffic Injury Control. Prior to stepping down, McLaughlin worked for more than 30 years in highway safety programs involving passenger cars and commercial motor vehicles at USDOT.

You began your transportation career in 1979 as a Presidential Management Intern for the Department of Transportation. How did you land that gig?

Presidential Management Intern (PMI) candidates were nominated by the graduate [school] where the nominee matriculated. I attended Rutgers University in New Jersey and was nominated by the dean of the School of Public Administration. Upon successful completion, the PMI program provided non-competitive appointment to a mid-level federal position.

Brian McLaughlin (third from the left) attends a Distracted Driving National Press Event in April 2014 with a few of his NHTSA colleagues.

What sparked your interest in such a career path?

My older sister was a claims examiner for the Social Security Administration. She would come home and tell stories about helping people receive benefits or deal with illness or death. I thought getting involved to help people was pretty cool. As a newly nominated PMI, I interviewed with two people at NHTSA who had a lot of passion about safety. I said, ‘That’s something I’d like to try.’ Thank God I did. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Prior to joining NHTSA, you were part of the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. What has been a career highlight?

One thing I have worked hard on is trying to build partnerships between the federal level and states, and with local communities through the states, to try and really understand what would make positive change in highway safety. At the federal level, we have no direct ability to impact safety. That’s what states and communities do.

A highlight for me has been helping to develop relationships with states to come up with and implement safety countermeasures. We won’t always agree on priority or strategy, but the safety dialogue is healthy and robust. That’s good for everyone.

How has the transportation industry changed since you started working in it?

The reliance on data and analysis has changed. There’s been an explosion of information in the last 35 years. NHTSA and many of our state partners have been at the forefront of that in establishing safety data systems and using the data to identify key problems. Thirty years ago, if you did a driver safety program you’d try to get a message out there to not drink when you drive. Now, we know from the data what our high-risk issues and populations are, and we can target them specifically.

It sounds like the transportation industry has come a long way in becoming relevant.

Transportation is key to our economy, our mobility as individuals and our quality of life. Working with states, communities and non-governmental partners, we’ve made highway safety a part of the American societal fabric. No newborn leaves a hospital without being in a properly installed child safety seat. Nearly 90 percent of Americans wear seat belts, up from about 17 percent when I first joined USDOT. MADD led the effort to make drinking and driving unacceptable, and states have responded with a huge volume of legislation addressing impaired driving.

An example of how highway safety has been ingrained into the fabric of American culture is the iconic “Click It or Ticket” (CIOT) national safety belt use enforcement campaign. It has even been used as the correct response question on the TV game show, “Jeopardy!” How great is that?

How will the partnership between AAMVA and NHTSA continue to improve safety on the roads?

As the nature of transportation continues to evolve and change, AAMVA and the states will be key partners in protecting and expanding the safety of roadway users. Emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles raise new challenges for establishing driver licensing requirements and ensuring safe vehicle operation. AAMVA members are already in the thick of efforts to assess and develop licensing requirements for operators of a new generation of vehicles that will operate in large part, if not entirely, without the constant participation of the driver.

While moving toward implementation of autonomous technologies, the need for the education of new generations of drivers continues. Impaired driving, distracted driving, proper child safety seat use and other driver behavior modification issues are constant threats that may reverse the safety progress of the recent past. Working with its state members, federal partners and non-governmental stakeholders, AAMVA will continue to be a key player in the efforts to make our highways safe.

What are your plans for retirement?

My current plans are to relax at home and maybe do some volunteer work. My wife plans to continue to work, so we will be staying in the Washington, D.C. area. A couple of times a year I’ll be able to visit our son, who is a freshman at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and go to football and basketball games with him.

Brian McLaughlin (right) is pictured here with Jeff Michael (left), Associate Administrator of Research & Program Development at NHTSA, and David Stickland (center), past Administrator of NHTSA.

Any hobbies?

I’m a golfer and a sports fan—a particularly rabid baseball fan. I’m a fan of the Washington Nationals and go to about 30 games a year. I also like to read, mostly mysteries and biographies.

What will you miss most about the transportation community?

I’ll miss the passion and cooperative nature of this community. It’s been a privilege for me to be involved with the folks I work with throughout the transportation community. People working in highway safety are remarkably dedicated and passionate about what they do. That passion, expertise and persistence has led to really remarkable results over the years.

In 1980, there were over 51,000 highway fatalities. In 2012, there were approximately 33,000. The numbers are still appallingly high, but this reduction is extremely significant to the 18,000 families each year that aren’t forced to deal with the tragedy of losing a loved one to a crash. That kind of success is pretty special.