Physician Brings ER Attention to Politics

Physician's Money Digest, November15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 21

Dr. Jeffrey W. Rungewas in the middleof a typical day atthe trauma centerwhen he received a phone callfrom the US government. Hehad just resuscitated 1 personfrom congestive heart failure,had another in the middle of aheart attack, a kid with a seizure, and 2 victims of a carcrash on their way. It wasn't exactly the most opportunemoment for a serious talk, but then, very fewmoments were opportune for him. After things calmeddown a bit, he considered the caller's request.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration(NHTSA; 888-327-4236; www.nhtsa.dot.gov)had called to request that Dr. Runge become its newadministrator. Dr. Runge had made a career of savinglives, specifically of those injured in auto accidents, andhis work hadn't gone unnoticed.

Background in Accidents

Born in Charlotte, NC, in 1955, Dr. Runge receivedhis MD from the Medical University of South Carolinain 1981. He took a residency position in emergencymedicine at the Charlotte Memorial Hospital, and hasworked in emergency medicine since. The daily injurieshe witnessed—many of which were avoidable by simplesafety steps—as a clinician at North Carolina'sbusiest trauma center, the Carolinas Medical Center,led him to take a strong role in injury prevention.

In his spare time, Dr. Runge conducted trafficsafety research, focusing on alcohol-related accidentsand the prevention of brain injuries. He lectured onaccident prevention at his trauma center. In 1995, hewas asked to be the NHTSA's first medical fellow. Hebecame the assistant medical examiner for MecklenburgCounty, NC, in 1998, and the next year wasnamed director of the Carolinas Center for InjuryPrevention and Control.

After careful consideration, Dr. Runge accepted thenomination as 12th head of the NHTSA, an agencyresponsible for reducing deaths, injuries, and economiclosses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. He told theAssociated Press, "It was a huge opportunity to beamong the nation's leaders and to affect so many morelives than I could 1 at a time."

Since his inception in 2001, Dr. Runge has implementedseveral new safety initiatives. He led the agencyin releasing its first child seat ratings and has seen arecord-high climb in the use of child seatbelts. Lastmonth, the NHTSA announced an $86.4-million grantincentive for states that lowered their legal threshold forimpaired driving to 0.08% blood alcohol concentration.

Controversial Scrutiny

The agency also released a study on vehicle weightand safety and announced a new rollover test. Last year,10,666 people were killed in rollover crashes, up 5%from 2001. Of all SUV occupant fatalities, 61% werethe result of a rollover crash. "Consumers need to considerrollover risk when they shop for a new vehicle," Dr.Runge insisted. "All vehicles are not created equal andconsumers need to educate themselves on what to buy."

Dr. Runge has drawn a few critical remarks fromsome auto industry leaders for his hard-line approach tocertain autos he considers a menace to traffic safety. Still,he stands firm behind auto safety ratings. Brian O'Neill,president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety,explained in an Associated Press interview, "The furorover Dr. Runge's remarks about SUVs and rollovers inpart seems to have been driven by the view that he's aRepublican administrator, and therefore shouldn't be acritic of the auto industry. But he's a committed highwaysafety advocate first and a Republican second."

Despite the expected political games Dr. Rungeencounters in Washington, he continues in his determinationto make vehicles and roads safer. "I've got a shortamount of time to get the job done," Runge told theAssociated Press, "and I will never forgive myself if Iwalk out of here and I have not done everything that Ican do to save my fellow man."