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Questions arise about highway-safety nominee's views on CAFE

President Obama tapped a longtime crusader against drunken driving to lead the Transportation Department's highway safety agency, but some environmentalists are concerned about the nominee's positions on fuel economy standards.

If confirmed, Charles Hurley would become the top official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that must draft and enforce a wide range of safety measures and craft corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards.

Hurley has served as CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving since 2005 and has spent more than three decades working on a host of driving safety initiatives. He previously held senior leadership posts at both the National Safety Council and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by auto insurers.

The insurance institute has been critical of past CAFE proposals and has backed an auto industry argument that a disproportionate focus on increasing fuel mileage would lead to smaller and less safe cars. The group helped lead a successful industry push for CAFE standards that use an attribute-based system that requires cars and trucks to achieve different standards depending on each vehicle's footprint.

Under the attribute-based system, the fleet average for each automaker varies depending on its product mix, with larger trucks and SUVs required to meet a less stringent standard than smaller cars. As a result, the attribute-based requirements are widely seen as giving an advantage to Detroit's Big Three, which have traditionally relied on large trucks and SUVs to boost their bottom lines. Safety advocates argue that the attribute system helps preserve highway safety.

Hurley's work with the institute during the 1990s was enough to worry Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, which has advocated for fuel economy increases. "It would be awkward to have an administrator of NHTSA who's spent much of his career attacking fuel economy standards that NHTSA administers," he told the Wall Street Journal.

Last month, Obama finalized a CAFE rulemaking that mandates an 8 percent increase in fuel economy for model year 2011. While the increase was less than a similar standard proposed by President George W. Bush, Obama has hinted that rulemakings for subsequent model years will grow more stringent and could push automakers beyond the 40 percent minimum improvement by 2020 that is required by law.

The White House has also suggested the possibility of blending new CAFE standards with the auto emissions standards that California and more than a dozen states are fighting to enforce, and sweeping climate and energy legislation proposed in the House last month would require the harmonization of the two standards (E&E Daily, April 1).

A hurdle that policymakers would face in joining the two standards is that the CAFE standards use the attribute-based system, while the California standards instead vary only between truck and car classes, and not based on the vehicles' footprint.

With exception of the fuel economy concern, Hurley's nomination drew near-universal praise from highway safety advocates.

"Chuck is a passionate safety advocate whose career has been dedicated to reducing motor vehicle deaths and injuries on the highways," said Vernon Betkey Jr., chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In addition to his extensive work on drunk-driving issues, Hurley has also worked with law enforcement agencies on air bag and seat belt issues, child passenger safety and teen driving initiatives.

In 2003, he worked with Obama, who was then an Illinois state senator, to strengthen a number of the state's highway safety laws. He has received the J. Stannard Baker Award for Highway Safety from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for his lifetime commitment and contributions to highway safety.

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