Sandberg became the second administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in August 2003. Her efforts assisted in a 41% reduction of large-truck fatality rates from 1996 to 2008. Sandberg led the agency of 1,100 people with a budget of $465 million until April 2006.
She also served as deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with more than 600 employees and a $403 million budget.
A nationally recognized expert in law enforcement and public safety, she led the Washington State Patrol as chief for six years. The agency had a biennial budget of $321 million and more than 2,200 employees. When appointed in 1995, she was the first woman to lead a state police agency anywhere in the U.S. She served in the Washington State Patrol (WSP) from 1983 to 1994.
While she had always expected to go into law, Sandberg’s early career in enforcement was born of necessity: Putting herself through college had tapped her out financially, and she discovered that police officers were paid much better than paralegals. “I thought policing would be a lot more fun than sitting at some desk in a law library researching something for some attorney,” she says.
Sandberg quickly rose through the troopers ranks, beginning in trucking enforcement—and going to law school at the same time. She was just 33 when she took the top job at the WSP.
“Opportunities became available to me, and I seized them. Don’t ever close a door. Always look at every door that is closed as an opportunity to try to open it,” Sandberg says. “Sometimes people accept the boundaries that society gives them, and you’ll be frustrated in your career if you stay where people want to put you. Sometimes that means you have to run your head into a brick wall a few times before you figure out how to climb over.”
On moving to Washington, DC, and federal transportation matters, Sandberg found a number of women who had followed similar paths to important assignments. Under Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the DOT’s modal administrations at the time featured women in charge at FHA, FAA, and FTA along with Sandberg at FMCSA.
“It’s taken a while, but if you look at all of those women and the earlier steps they took in their careers, it really set them up,” Sandberg says. “Some of it is generational, but some of it is getting women who are interested in these non-traditional careers—then sticking with it until they can take a leadership role. Having other women in key roles at DOT certainly was very, very helpful.”