U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has tendered his resignation, indicating he will not stay on through the second term of the Obama Administration.
A one-time Republican Congressman from Illinois, the 67-year-old cabinet member has led efforts to ramp up enforcement of automotive safety issues after the relatively lax, pro-industry years under th previous Bush Administration. LaHood has been especially aggressive in targeting the issue of driver distraction, something he has termed an epidemic and blamed for thousands of U.S. highway deaths annually.
“As I look back on the past four years, I am proud of what we have accomplished together in so many important areas,” LaHood wrote in an e-mail to DoT employees outlining his decision to leave as soon as a successor can be named.
The former representative of Illinois’ 18th Congressional District, LaHood cited not only the efforts the Transportation Dept. has made to improve highway safety but also pointed to the Obama Administration’s decision to back the U.S. auto industry after the new president’s inauguration in 2009 – just months before General Motors and Chrysler would declare bankruptcy.
“What a difference a few years make,” LaHood declared during the opening ceremony at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month. “President Obama did the right thing,” the nation’s highest transportation official asserted, referring to the decision to offer a multi-billion bailout for the two makers.
That position underscores the contrast between LaHood and most other leading Republican officials in the U.S. in recent years. With a track record of seeking bipartisanship, LaHood was one of two members of the GOP to serve in the Obama Administration, along with Sec. of Defense Robert Gates.
LaHood previously served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, helping him gain the experience that landed him the post with the DoT.
He originally supported Pres. Obama’s first-term opponent, Sen. John McCain, but found himself on the outs after criticizing the name-calling tactics of the Arizonan’s running mate Sarah Palin.
As part of the new White House team, LaHood became a staunch defender of the new administration and took on a much more proactive role than his predecessor during the Bush Administration.
The DoT chief and his team at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved a number of strict new safety standards. In particular, though, LaHood took aim at the “epidemic” of distracted driving, which NHTSA data indicate is responsible for as much as 11% of annual U.S. traffic fatalities. The administration has pressed for aggressive new regulations at both the state and national level and that may be one of the few areas where bipartisanship has succeeded over the last four years, observers suggest.
LaHood has, however, come under fire on several occasions. The DoT and NHTSA were chided for lax enforcement when Congress heard testimony in 2010 concerning the unintended acceleration scandal embroiling Toyota.
He also was faulted for giving advice to owners of some recalled Toyota vehicles that they should park those products until repairs could be made. LaHood quickly revising his stand, advising “owners of any recalled Toyota models (to) contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible.”
In his role as the nation’s top transportation official, LaHood has also become an outspoken advocate of high-speed rail, while also siding with travelers in the ongoing debate over airline passenger rights.
No replacement for the Transportation Secretary has yet been named. LaHood is the latest of first-term cabinet officials who have decided to leave the administration, including Sec. of State Hillary Clinton.
Tags: auto news, auto safety, automotive safety, car news, distracted driving, gm bailout, lahood stepping down, paul a. eisenstein, paul eisenstein, ray lahood, sec of transportation, thedetroitbureau