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Nicole Nason seems more mom-next-door than woman at the top of the nation’s highway safety agency.
But bubbly personalities can be misleading. The 36-year-old lawyer and former Republican Capitol Hill aide is an accomplished political strategist who uses good humor and charm where others might snipe. It’s won her admirers and a job, since May, heading the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
NHTSA deals with issues ranging from auto-safety regulation to drunken driving to safety belt use. Earlier this month, the agency proposed a regulation that would require stability control on all vehicles by 2012. Stability control, which NHTSA says could save more than 10,000 lives a year, uses brakes and engine power to keep cars from veering out of drivers’ control.
Since it was on the hot seat during the Firestone tire recall in 2000, the agency has tried to focus more publicly on behavioral issues such as seat belt use than on mechanical ones. It hasn’t been easy.
NHTSA has yet to find the way to lower the nation’s highway death toll, which is at a 15-year high. Consumer advocates say that’s because the agency has neglected changes that could be made to cars to make them safer. And Congress, frustrated by NHTSA’s pace in adopting safety standards, last year laid out an ambitious rulemaking agenda for the next couple of years.
All of this combines to make the job of NHTSA chief a fine one for someone said to be adept at bringing adversaries together and deflecting the drumbeat of criticism from Capitol Hill.
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who was Nason’s boss on the House Judiciary Committee shortly after she graduated from law school, found her, above all, personable. Better still, says McNulty, so did the Democrats with whom she often had to cobble compromises.
“You just like being around her,” says McNulty. “Her mind is very quick, and you can see it in her sense of humor.”
Another former boss, ex-Transportation secretary Norman Mineta, says Nason can “connect the dots” and make things happen. “There were many times when she’d pull the rabbit out,” Mineta says of the years Nason served as assistant secretary for governmental affairs.
Nason, the youngest NHTSA chief ever, says her priorities include child safety, car technology and law enforcement. Her interest in child safety stems, at least in part, from having daughters ages 2 and 5. Nason, who has appeared at several child-safety events in the last few weeks, tells the story of her 5-year-old declaring one day that she wanted something a friend had. As Nason braced to come up with an appropriate response to some frivolous request, her daughter said it was a pink booster seat with cup holders. The two went straight to the store to get one.
Nason says car technology interests her because her generation and those younger are so quick to embrace it. Along with stability control, she’s intrigued by technology that could unobtrusively check drivers’ blood alcohol levels and prevent cars from starting if they are too high, warnings that go off when cars drift from their lanes and brakes that add pressure in emergency situations.
Her interest in highway safety comes naturally. Nason’s father, Philip Robilotto, is a retired police chief of Suffolk County, N.Y. Her brother is an emergency room doctor. Her father emphasized highway safety in no uncertain terms. Nason says she’s been pulled over only once in her life — by her father, who stopped her with lights and sirens blaring because he thought she was driving too fast through a residential neighborhood.
“If you wind up with a child on your windshield, it will be something you never forget,” she says he told her.
Jim Champagne, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association and a former Louisiana state police lieutenant colonel, often finds his group at odds with NHTSA because he thinks the agency tries to push its safety goals on states. But he considers Nason’s family ties a big plus.
“Society very often does not want traffic laws enforced,” says Champagne, so “she certainly brings a great insight into the tribulations of police officers.”
Champagne hopes Nason will become more engaged in efforts to combat speeding, which accounts for a third of all traffic deaths but doesn’t get the federal attention belts and booze do.
General Motors safety chief Bob Lange says Nason, who doesn’t have an automotive background, has “shown a real willingness to roll up her sleeves to understand the complexities and other technical aspects that go into making vehicles safer.”
Former NHTSA chief and consumer advocate Joan Claybrook, a frequent adversary of Republican administrations, thinks Nason’s good humor and political skills may be just what’s needed.
“If she is savvy politically, she can get things done, walk these fine lines and get closure without turning her back on one side or the other,” says Claybrook.