It's the kind of publicity every automaker hates. A car is shown slamming into a barrier during a crash test. Metal crumples, glass flies and - worst of all - the prime-time news reporter's brow furrows worriedly as the test results are rated "unacceptable" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Tens of millions of casual TV viewers watching a recent TV news magazine report now think the Dodge Neon and several other subcompacts are "unsafe" in a frontal impact.

Never mind that the impact speed was 40 mph (64 km/h) - faster than 99.9% of all frontal impacts and more severe than anything the U.S. federal government currently requires. Never mind that the crash dummy data showed the driver would have survived without life-threatening injuries. The TV news reporter, and the IIHS, are pointing to potentially severe leg injuries caused by the deformation of the vehicle's body shell during the crash.

Welcome to the next focus of global vehicle safety: leg, foot and ankle injuries.

Now that seat belts, air bags and more crashworthy body structures are doing a fairly good job of preventing major - or fatal - injuries to the head, neck and thorax in relatively severe frontal impacts, safety activists, insurance companies and government legislators are trying to get their foot in the door by pushing for safety standards that mandate better protection for the lower extremities.

Europe has a leg up, so to speak. New regulations precisely limiting impact forces to feet and legs during offset frontal crashes begin Oct. 1, 1998, in the European Community. The new legislation has sparked the development of several new safety technologies, including foot and knee air bags at auto suppliers such as

Siemens AG and TRW Inc. in Europe. Unlike the U.S., though, the new European standards apply only to brand-new vehicle designs.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA) also has its toe in the water. It's working on leg-injury criteria as part of its development of an offset frontal crash test for the U.S. NHTSA's test, still under development, is expected to be significantly different from Europe's. A NHTSA spokesman says the agency still is evaluating - among other issues - whether the test barrier should be fixed or deformable, and at what speed the test should take place. So the other shoe has yet to drop.

Generally, the offset crash test is designed to measure how far vehicle components and the basic body structure intrude into the passenger compartment during severe frontal impacts that occur at an angle with fixed or movable barriers. In Europe, maximum biomechanical values - representing physical injury criteria on human legs - have been set as to how far crash dummy legs can be compressed and bent by contact with foot wells, instrument panels and other parts of the vehicle shoved forward during a crash.

European automakers traditionally have argued that the offset crash, which causes more intrusion into the passenger compartment, represents more real-life situations where impacts are at an angle because of attempted evasive maneuvers. U.S. automakers typically have argued that crashing head-on into a fixed barrier at 30 mph or 35 mph (48 or 56 km/h) is the best test because it represents the most violent type of deceleration an occupant can face.

Aside from the head, there reportedly are more injuries involving lower extremities in frontal crashes. Although they aren't usually life-threatening, severe foot and leg injuries can cause extremely high medical costs due to time-intensive rehabilitation - and can result in permanent disabilities that tax the resources of insurance companies and Europe's socialized health care system.

Dante Bigi, director of TRW Restraint Systems Worldwide, says new vehicles being introduced in Europe after October 1998 will be able to accommodate the requirements of the new European leg injury legislation with good body structure design and without adding special features.

Nevertheless, some luxury automakers want to add an extra level of protection to some vehicles. Mr. Bigi says TRW will begin producing driver-side knee air bags for a major European customer in 12 to 15 months.

Something's also afoot at Siemens AG, which is developing a foot air bag concept, fitted into the floorpan and resembling a pancake lying underneath the floor mat. Siemens says several crash tests have shown it can reduce serious foot, ankle and leg injuries by 80%, and is more beneficial than air bags located higher up in the knee bolster area.

Mr. Bigi counters that TRW studies have found knee bags highly effective in preventing foot and leg injuries, and says the foot-bag concept raises vehicle-control issues if a driver's feet are suddenly moved by an inflating air bag.

Whatever the case, the cost and exotic nature of such new devices (TRW's knee bag likely will cost $20 or $30 per car) will perhaps limit them to top-line luxury marques for the near term.