One of the longest-tenured U.S. highway safety chiefs is back on the auto safety field, and he’s wasting little time getting into the game.

Ricardo Martinez led NHTSA in 1994-99. For most of the past two decades, he has held medical executive posts in Atlanta and Dallas while continuing to work as an emergency physician at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

Soon he’ll be moving back to Atlanta, where he’ll return to a full-time faculty position at Emory University’s Injury Prevention Research Center. He’ll also be working with the school’s Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network, or CIREN.

It’s funded by NHTSA and serves the agency by analyzing data from patients injured in vehicle crashes. That information is then used to guide crash tests and shape auto safety regulation.

“It’s a great time for rejoining the conversation,” Martinez, 65, told me over the phone last week from Tampa, Fla., while on break from yet another pursuit. He’s the founder of the Medical Sports Group, which has overseen emergency medical and disaster planning at the Super Bowl since 1988.

His opinion column on Page 14 of this issue can be seen as an early step in returning to the auto forefront. He argues that the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine can provide a road map for bringing autonomous vehicles safely to market.

He also pointed out that Atlanta is now an automotive hub, making it a natural spot for his latest line of work. Since his NHTSA days, the city has become home to the U.S. headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz as well as Cox Automotive and its mobility efforts.

Among the questions I had for him: With all the improvements in auto safety technology, why does the annual U.S. highway death toll remain stuck around 35,000?

There are other metrics to consider, he said, namely deaths per 100 million miles. A check through NHTSA’s database does indeed show a different picture.

The number of people dying annually has fallen from a peak of 54,589 in 1972. But deaths per 100 million miles traveled have dropped even more sharply, from a high of 24 a century ago to just 1.1 in 2019,near a historic low.

Still, promising trends are meaningless if you’ve lost a friend or loved one to a car crash. Too many of us have. Some 3,700 die daily on the world’s roadways, Martinez says. And as the number of miles driven increases post-pandemic, we’re at risk of seeing the fatality count rise.

Which is one of the reasons driving Martinez back to auto safety.

“Dramatic changes in technology now provide an opportunity for development of autonomous vehicles, and a connected highway infrastructure that, as a system, can radically impact these numbers and provide additional societal benefits,” he says.

I also asked if he believes the goal of zero deaths — as publicly stated by the likes of Volvo and General Motors — is possible. He dismissed the question as irrelevant. The commitment is what matters, he says. It forges a covenant with the public and also provides a prism through which corporate decisions are made.

“I would not let a fear of failure diminish the intensity of that goal.”

And with that thought comes a message to auto bosses everywhere. As he writes on Page 14: “A committed culture of safety, all the way to the CEO, matters. Own it.”