DETROIT – The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. is mulling changes to its 5-star crash-assessment testing that will put emphasis on new electronic accident-avoidance technologies, Administrator David Strickland says.

Speaking to a gathering of the Society of Automotive Analysts here on the eve of the first press day for the North American International Auto Show, Strickland says the agency is eying new credits that would help raise consumer awareness for the new technologies and encourage auto makers to further proliferation across additional vehicle lines.

“We’re now looking at what new technologies to highlight in the 5-star ratings,” he says, adding a decision could come “soon.”

The road map is the one followed by the agency earlier with electronic stability control. Initially, ESC application earned auto makers extra credit in National Car Assessment Program impact testing. That led to a rule requiring the anti-skid technology on all new models beginning with the ΚΌ12 model year.

Strickland doesn’t say what technologies the agency is considering for NCAP add-on credits, but he says there are a number of active safety systems currently being evaluated, including forward-collision-warning and lane-departure-assistance systems.

“Crash-worthiness has been the guiding star for NHTSA (since its inception),” he says. “But if there’s an opportunity to prevent a crash – that is the goal.” Strickland says 80% of crashes are caused by driver error.

The agency also will be releasing a framework “real soon” for in-vehicle electronics intended to help limit driver distraction.

“We don’t want to stifle innovation, but we recognize technology (can impact) safety,” he says. “So we will be setting in-vehicle guidelines so auto makers can innovate within a zone of safety.”

Strickland says NHTSA is working to collect better data on driver distraction. One research program will equip 2,000 vehicles with cameras to monitor driver behavior over a 2-year period. Results of that study are due in 2014.

“The goal is to make sure we have an accurate picture of what is happening in the vehicle so that we’re not creating something that is a risk for every driver.”

Strickland points to further safety gains possible through vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology, which he says NHTSA is committed to turning into reality. Equating V2V to a safety “moon shot,” he says it represents “the next big safety breakthrough.”

V2V systems could eliminate 80% of crashes involving non-impaired drivers, he says, saying the technology could take U.S. fatalities down from almost 33,000 per year now “to 25,000, then 20,000.”

“V2V is a main focus of NHTSA,” he says, citing a 2-stage, 3-year test program it is undertaking in Ann Arbor, MI, with auto makers General Motors, Ford, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen to test the technology with consumers.

Strickland does not put a timetable on when V2V could be commercialized.

Automatic crash notification, in which onboard systems notify emergency responders in the event of an accident, hold nearer-term promise to reduce fatalities, the NHTSA official says.

“Our hope is that in the future, every car in America will have crash-notification,” he says.

dzoia@wardsauto.com