Too many vehicles are passing the U.S. Department of Transportation's crash tests with flying colors, so the agency is preparing to propose new methodologies that will make it tougher for auto makers to earn 5-star ratings.

Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters, meeting here with reporters outside the North American International Auto Show, says 87% of the cars on the market today are earning 5-star ratings – the highest score – in National Car Assessment Program (NCAP) impact testing, so it is time to raise the bar.

The DOT says auto makers that are including crash-avoidance technology such as electronic stability control (ESC), rear-collision avoidance and lane-departure warning systems in their vehicles are not being rewarded properly for making the investment, and the new methodologies to be proposed would rectify that.

Crash-avoidance technology has saved 330,000 lives since the 1960s, the DOT estimates, and the agency wants to accelerate the technology movement that already is being driven by consumer demand for enhanced safety.

“We’re going to investigate how we might encourage auto makers to incorporate these in their designs,” Peters says. “The (rating system) must evolve with the times and technology.

“Our desire is to see fewer cars get 5-star ratings (initially),” she adds. “We think that will encourage auto makers to employ ESC (and other technology), because they will want to see they get higher ratings (again).”

The DOT already has proposed requiring ESC on all light vehicles by the ’09 model year.

Actual crash-testing requirements won’t change, but the way the DOT scores the tests would under the proposal. Today, to earn a 5-star rating, the agency says, the probability for a serious injury or death has to be 10% or less. That allowable percentage would decline under the proposed changes, but the DOT also would factor in bonus points if the vehicle is equipped with such things as ESC.

The details of how that would work are still to be sorted out, the agency says.

The DOT also wants to make the star rating system more understandable to consumers, in part by culling the results down to one front- and one side-impact rating, rather than splitting scores between front and rear occupants and drivers and passengers.

Peters says the DOT will take a “common sense” approach to the proposed changes.

The agency will hold a public meeting in Washington on March 7 to gather comments before making a final proposal on the changes to NCAP.

“We want to listen to the public and the auto makers and do this as quickly as possible,” Peters says when asked about the potential timetable for a final proposal.

Testing requirements won’t change, officials say, but auto makers may have to employ different test dummies to get some of the new results, particularly if the DOT adds hip and thigh injury ratings in side-impact testing.

The DOT plans to issue more information regarding rear impacts, which Peters says is of growing concern to motorists. It also will provide motorists with tips for safer driving to prevent rear-end collisions and for proper head-restraint positioning to avoid injury.

Meanwhile, Peters says the Bush Admin. is “discussing whether” to re-introduce proposals to change car and truck fuel-economy requirements that failed to gain momentum in Congress last April.

dzoia@wardsauto.com