With the proliferation of crash safety and crash prevention vehicle technologies, the U.S. Department of Transportation wants to bring the nearly 30-year-old safety rankings into the modern era.

Auto makers and the government both see a need to overhaul the ratings system. The big question is how.

This week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked auto makers, suppliers and the public for ideas on how best to evaluate new systems and how to present those assessments to consumers. Among the proposals is the Bush Admin.’s desire to consolidate the current three crash ratings into one.

“The time has come to rethink our approach to testing the safety of vehicles in this country,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says.

Crash avoidance technologies, such as electronic stability control (ESC), lane-departure and rear-collision avoidance systems help give new vehicles a boost in the current ratings. But not all safety and prevention systems are created equal, notes Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety.

“We would recommend evaluating them to see whether you should give them any credit in the (scores),” Ditlow says. “But we would not recommend uniformly giving a car a higher rating just because it has a stability control.”

NHTSA also plans to update the way standard front, side and rollover tests are conducted by the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), which issues the 5-star or lower vehicle ratings. The department plans to add new tests that evaluate upper leg injuries to its frontal-crash tests and head injuries to its side-crash tests.

A General Motors Corp. spokesman tells Ward’s the auto maker is broadly supportive of the proposed new standards, but is concerned about a single rating for both crash avoidance and crash protection.

“It’s really hard to judge a vehicle’s crash worthiness and crash avoidance in one rating,” he says.

More critical has been the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group. The IIHS says while the NCAP updates are sorely needed, they may not be comprehensive enough.

“There is much to like about NHTSA’s vision, but the proposals will not do much to restore the sparkle to the diamond that was NCAP,” Adrian Lund, IIHS president, says in testimony during a NHTSA hearing.

The insurance group says NHTSA is over confident in new OE technologies, particularly ESC, to prevent fatal crashes.

“NHTSA has fallen into the trap of assuming that crash-avoidance improvements are necessary and sufficient solutions to reduce deaths from rollover crashes, but such deaths will continue in a vehicle fleet equipped with ESC,” Lund says.

A spokesman for the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers lobbying organization says while the industry group has yet to weigh-in formerly on the issue, it would like to see NHTSA base tests changes on “real-world data.”

NHTSA is seeking public and industry input on the possible changes through April 10. The government will issue the changes soon afterward.

scanderson@wardsauto.com