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Update: Nason stepped down from her position in September 2008. She was replaced by David Kelley, her former chief of staff.

When Nicole Nason became administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in May 2006, she was no stranger to auto safety. She had just spent three years as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s assistant secretary for government affairs, lobbying Congress on legislation involving vehicle safety technology, fuel economy and drunk driving, among others.

But Nason, 37, soon realized how much she didn’t know about issues such as school bus seatbelts, car seats and the technologies available to reduce car crashes — and how family would influence her job.

Complicated Car Seats
When she heard NHTSA and outside safety experts were rewriting the child seat installation curriculum, Nason suggested in late 2006 that they should simplify the course. She couldn’t believe it needed to take four days and fill a 2-inch-thick book to teach someone to put a car seat in. Police and firefighters were saying they couldn’t take four days to do the course and people showing up to get their car seats checked were often told there was nobody trained to do it, she says.

“My reaction was, I’m a mother of two [she gave birth to her third child in February 2007] and I know how to install a car seat,” says Nason. “Mothers across the country know how to install car seats.”

Nason decided she and her senior staff needed to take the course so they could recommend how to shorten it. Nason’s most vivid memory is of struggling unsuccessfully to get a newer version of her younger daughter’s Britax convertible car seat installed in the backseat of her Honda Pilot. Maybe it wasn’t so easy after all: “It was kind of a eureka moment,” says Nason.

The experience left her convinced that with all the older cars on the road — many with no lap/shoulder belt in the rear center seat and some with seatbelts that attach to the doors — they could only get the course down to three days. Until there was more uniformity in auto seatbelts, training would have to remain a multiday exercise.

But that still left consumers in a quandary, so Nason decided that car seats needed to be graded more stringently on their ease of use, with the same star rating system that had already been applied to cars for years. Up until then, NHTSA rated child seats using letter grades, and none had ever gotten worse than a B. In January 2008, NHTSA issued a rule requiring that all child seats be rated using stars according to their labeling, instructions and features that make them easier to secure. This time, none got five stars. (For more information on the car seat star ratings, go to the NHTSA Web site.)

Questioning Car Seat Crash Tests
Soon after she suggested the car seat course changes, Nason wound up in the public spotlight, after Consumer Reports’ January 2007 issue claimed that most of the 12 infant seats it tested had failed, often “disastrously.” As agency officials were telling her the results couldn’t be true, consumers were calling NHTSA’s auto safety hotline in hysterics, and friends were calling her at home. Nason decided to take on the magazine. When she mentioned this to her mother, a longtime Consumer Reports subscriber, Nason says, “Her reaction was, ‘You need to tread carefully — they’re a very respected magazine, and you’re in your first six months on the job.’ All I could think was, if I can’t sell my parents on this, then how am I going to restore confidence to the American public?”

It wasn’t until NHTSA conducted its own extensive crash testing that she could put everyone’s fears to rest. The agency concluded the magazine’s tests simulated a 70-mph crash, not the 35-mph collisions it claimed. The magazine retracted the story. “My mother cancelled her subscription and became my big advocate,” says Nason.

Family also influenced Nason’s interest in school bus safety. After Nason’s older daughter, Alexandra, rode her first school bus to kindergarten in September 2006, she asked her mother why it didn’t have seatbelts. Nason asked her staff when the agency had last done any extensive research and testing on the issue and learned it was about 30 years earlier, when the first school bus regulation was done. (For more on this, see “Should School Buses Have Seatbelts?”.)

So Nason did what few other moms could. She organized a school bus safety “summit” in July 2007 that brought all sides together to discuss the issue. The result? A proposed rule, out in November 2007, that requires all small school buses to have lap/shoulder belts and all new buses to have higher, more protective seatbacks. They also laid out the specifications if states decide to mandate belts on full-sized school buses. (See more on NHTSA’s school bus rule.)

The Next Battleground: Backover Dangers
From Nason’s first day on the job, the advocacy group Kids and Cars was pressuring NHTSA and Congress to do something about the deaths of children — at least 100 each year — who are backed over by vehicles, often due to nettlesome blind zones. The problem was most apparent in SUVs, minivans and trucks. Nason asked agency officials to test various back-up warning and camera systems on vehicles — which consumer advocates were strongly recommending as standard equipment — and decided to supplement the agency’s work with research of her own. She asked her husband David — the assistant secretary of financial institutions at the Treasury Department — to stand in various positions behind her Honda Pilot while she tried to back up in her driveway. No matter where he stood, Nason could see him perfectly. Then, without warning her, David decided to move a nearby garbage can — and Nason nearly hit him. The problem? He had left the scope of the camera’s angle and darted back into it before she had time to react.

NHTSA issued a report concluding that, while cameras have great potential, more work still needed to be done to improve the devices’ field of vision. Because of this cautious approach, safety advocates then focused on Congress, which eventually passed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act early this year. Signed by President Bush in February, the new law is intended to reduce deaths and injuries to children in backover, runaway car and power window incidents. (To learn more about the issue and the new law, check out the Kids and Cars Web site and Edmunds’ “Preventing Backover Deaths.” Now Nason’s job is to make it all happen.

Working on such important life and death issues can be stressful, but Nason says it’s worth it. Becoming NHTSA administrator “was more trial by fire than I expected,” she says. But she gets great satisfaction from being able to make a difference to parents — just like her.