The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed by voice vote President Joe Biden's nominee to serve as the top auto safety regulator, the first to win approval since January 2017 and as U.S. traffic deaths have risen to the highest level in 16 years.

Steven Cliff has been serving as deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) since February 2021 and was nominated by Biden for the top job in October. His approval by the Senate comes amid soaring U.S. traffic deaths and several ongoing investigations into safety issues at Tesla Inc.

Cliff, a former deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board, was a key figure in the Biden administration's rewrite of fuel economy standards through 2027. NHTSA is beginning to hold discussions about the next round of fuel economy increases.

The Governors Highway Safety Association praised Cliff's approval and noted NHTSA "went more than five years without a confirmed leader."

NHTSA says U.S. traffic deaths jumped 10.5% in 2021 to 42,915 - the highest number killed on American roads in a single year since 2005.

The yearly increase was the highest reported since NHTSA began using its current traffic fatality tracking system in 1975. The number of pedestrians killed jumped 13% to 7,342, hitting the highest number since 1981. The number of people on bicycles killed rose 5% to 985, the highest number since at least 1975.

NHTSA in August opened a formal safety probe into Tesla's Autopilot system in 765,000 U.S. vehicles after a series of crashes involving Tesla models and emergency vehicles. In October, NHTSA asked Tesla why it has not issued a recall to address software updates made to its Autopilot driver-assistance system.

Cliff in December said he hoped NHTSA would soon finish its investigations into Tesla crashes involving automated driving systems. Last week, NHTSA said it opened a special crash investigation into a May 12 Tesla fatal crash in California that resulted in three deaths and could have been caused by its advanced driver assistance system.