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His 2 callings geared toward saving lives

Jeffrey Runge, a doctor and head of national highway safety, sees himself on a mission.

August 27, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — One Saturday many years ago, while working in an emergency room, Dr. Jeffrey Runge had to tell parents that their two children died in an auto accident because they were not wearing seat belts.

The next week, Runge treated two teenagers saved by seat belts when their vehicle plunged 30 feet into a construction pit.

Auto safety became a second calling for Runge, now head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"The difference between those two Saturdays was the reason to do something," Runge said.

Two years after becoming the agency's administrator, the 47-year-old physician remains invigorated about his mission.

"Every day is graduate school," Runge says, whether he is pushing for increased seat belt use or venting about the highway fatality rate: 42,815 deaths in 2002, or an average of 117 a day.

"What do you think this department would do if an overloaded 747 was dropping out of the sky every day? We would probably ground the entire fleet, and there would be no aircraft flying until we found out the problem," he says.

Runge has formed teams to focus on five priorities: increasing seat belt use, decreasing impaired driving, improving data collected on accidents and defects, preventing rollovers and reducing the amount of damage to small vehicles when they are hit by larger ones.

On Runge's watch, the agency has released its first child seat ratings and seen child seat belt use climb to a record high. This year, the agency will begin using a data collection system to help spot defects more quickly.

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist, who represents 10 automakers, is struck by Runge's passion.

"He makes a very strong argument that this [fatality rate] is an outrage," she said. "We've become so inured to it that we start to accept this as a given, and it's not."

Runge has made a career of saving lives. He has taught and worked at Carolinas Medical Center -- North Carolina's busiest trauma center -- since 1984.

In his spare time, Runge has done traffic safety research, focusing on alcohol-related accidents and prevention of brain injuries. His work caught the attention of a former NHTSA administrator, Dr. Ricardo Martinez, who called Runge in 1995 and asked him to become the agency's first medical fellow.

Runge spent 1996 meeting agency experts and poring over data. When he returned to the hospital in Charlotte, N.C., he set up an injury prevention program that uses traffic and injury data to guide public policy.

Runge was in the trauma center when he was contacted about the federal job.

He eventually had time to consider the offer and won unanimous Senate approval. He now lives in suburban Virginia with his artist wife and teenage son. His daughter attends college in South Carolina.

Runge has been the subject of some controversy. At an auto conference in Detroit in January, he angered automakers when he said he "wouldn't buy my kid a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on Earth."

Runge said the comment -- which referred to the government's rollover ratings -- was misinterpreted as a knock on sport utility vehicles. "My whole point was that all vehicles are not created equal, and consumers need to educate themselves on what to buy."

Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the rift has been repaired because automakers realize Runge is willing to compromise.

Runge has been criticized by some safety advocates as well, particularly because he supports letting automakers adopt voluntary safety standards instead of requiring changes.

He said changes would come faster through voluntary action because the agency's rule-making can take four or more years.

Runge said he is determined to make vehicles safer. He often thinks about three teenagers he treated before he left for Washington. They were wearing seat belts, which helped limit their injuries when the compact car they were riding in was hit by an SUV.

The SUV's passengers were thrown from the vehicle because they were not buckled. The driver of the compact car was killed instantly.

"Here was an example of what America needs to know about," Runge said. "I've got a short amount of time to get the job done."

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