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December 2015

Q&A with Mark Rosekind, NHTSA Administrator

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., has been the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for less than a year, but already he has made major progress for vehicle safety and has plans to do more. MOVE spoke with Rosekind, an internationally-renowned human fatigue expert, about joining the USDOT after working for NASA, NHTSA’s drowsy driving initiative and performing magic in space.

What was the biggest highlight of your career prior to joining the USDOT?

While at NASA Ames Research Center, we completed a study on the benefits of planned naps for cockpit crews in flight. The study was a rewarding combination of pure science, practical application and safety. The findings: a 26-minute nap improved performance by 34 percent and alertness by 54 percent.

What eventually led you to the DOT?

My entire career has been focused on safety. Prior to joining the DOT, I served as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). My time there was a tremendously rewarding opportunity to learn about and contribute to the important process of investigating safety incidents, and using those investigative findings to make safety recommendations. My position as NHTSA’s administrator is my first with the DOT. At NHTSA, we have the opportunity to investigate safety issues, take concrete steps to counter risks to safety, and creatively use all of the tools available to us to increase safety for the traveling public.

What were your top priorities coming into the NHTSA administrator position?

When I came to NHTSA I identified three priorities. First, we needed to make improvements in our processes for investigating and addressing vehicle safety defects and recalling defective vehicles. Second was encouraging technology innovations to improve safety such as automated vehicle technology, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). That means improving the agency’s internal technology capabilities as well. And third, strengthening our core safety programs. NHTSA’s behavioral efforts such as the fight against impaired driving, encouraging seat belt use and combatting emerging challenges such as child heat stroke are at the core of the agency’s lifesaving mission.

You have served as the administrator for less than a year. What is your proudest accomplishment so far?

That’s easy—supporting the talented and passionate people with whom I work every day. When I came to NHTSA I already knew that there were smart, dedicated people here, but I cannot say enough about how they have performed over the past year. We’ve been busy with high-profile vehicle issues like the Takata recalls and the nation’s first-ever cybersecurity recall, and new behavioral-safety efforts like the agency’s seat belt campaign aimed at “tweens” and our new drowsy driving initiative.

We’ve worked to improve coordination with our state-level partners, encourage lifesaving vehicle automation technologies, and establish groundbreaking fuel economy and emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles with the EPA. We celebrated the DADSS program. We’re also making internal improvements on information technology and redesigning the NHTSA home page. It’s an incredible list, and the common thread that runs through all of it is NHTSA people doing amazing work. There’s so much more to come.

Could you talk about NHTSA’s plans with its drowsy driving initiative?

Because sleep and fatigue are my area of scientific expertise, at first I was hesitant to focus on drowsy driving during my time at NHTSA. But very early on, Jeff Michael, Ed.D., our associate administrator for research and program development, made the case that this is a growing safety issue and that my knowledge and connections in the field could help NHTSA address it. So we’re moving on a number of fronts.

Drowsiness is hard to measure and there is widespread agreement that current estimates understate the problem, so we’re sharpening our data-gathering tools to better inform policymaking. NHTSA is assessing better ways to alert the public to the problem and how to counteract it.

Just as we’ve done with seat belts, motorcycle helmets and more, we’re developing policy guidance to help states make smart decisions for safety. We’re also conducting research into technologies that could detect or counter drowsy driving. And we’re working with partners at the Federal Highway Administration and at the state level on infrastructure countermeasures—something as simple and inexpensive as a rumble strip could save lives.

What are some of your other top concerns regarding vehicle safety?

Vehicles are safer than ever, and consumers know that. But after a drumbeat of unfortunate episodes—Toyota’s unintended acceleration, GM’s ignition switch, Takata’s air bags, Fiat Chrysler’s recall problems, Volkswagen’s emissions scandal—public confidence is at risk. My message to the auto industry has been that we need a proactive approach to vehicle safety, one that takes the notion that driving our cars is the most dangerous activity most of us do on a daily basis seriously, and that puts a tremendous responsibility on manufacturers. This is so important because we’re at the dawn of a new era in vehicle safety, one in which we aren’t just making crashes more survivable, but using technology to avoid crashes altogether. If consumers feel they can’t trust the companies that build these systems, they will not meet their full safety potential.

How are you collaborating with AAMVA and its members in regard to these concerns?

AAMVA and NHTSA share many lifesaving objectives focused on enhancing roadway safety. We’re in close collaboration with AAMVA and the states on many issues, such as emerging technologies like vehicle automation. The strong collaboration between our organizations brings real value to the traveling public.

Any hobbies?

I’ve been a magician since the fifth grade. Over my magic career, I’ve levitated my wife and separated her into three parts on stage. I also helped my friend, astronaut Jim Bagian, M.D., perform the first magic trick in space.