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US Government Announces Tougher Auto Safety Rating System

A passenger car during a side impact safety test

A passenger car during a side impact safety test

The U.S. Transportation Department has unveiled a new safety rating system that makes it more difficult for new cars and trucks to earn top scores. Besides adding tougher tests to the mix, the annual evaluation of new vehicles adds a new measure: the impact of collisions on drivers and passengers - using female crash test dummies for the first time.

In the interest of driver safety, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has added new tests to evaluate side pole impacts.

And for the first time, Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood says they're looking at the effect of high-speed collisions on smaller crash test dummies.

"We are also rating a system now not just for male passengers or drivers, but for female passengers or drivers. That's an extraordinary leap for us," he said.

Call it gender equality, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Adrian Lund says there's a good reason for simulating crashes using female dummies.

"Well, we think that is a step in the right direction," he said. "Smaller people have their seats further forward. That tends to put their heads right in the middle of the window. There's nothing between their heads and whatever is coming in from outside."

For automakers, that means designing side airbags large enough for smaller drivers and passengers.

The Transportation Department has also changed its rating system so buyers can better distinguish the best performers. "We've raised the bar on safety. More stars, safer cars. People really have to prove to us these cars deserve a five star rating," Hood said.

Of 34 vehicles tested, only two received the top rating - the BMW 5 series and the Hyundai Sonata. The government's new rating system already has some automakers adding collision sensors and other safety features in their cars.

For consumers, that's a win-win situation. "Odds are something is going to happen to me out there on the road so definitely safety is a big concern of mine," said one man.

Last year more than 90 percent of the vehicles tested under the old system earned top marks for safety. Lahood says the new safety ratings will help car shoppers navigate an increasingly crowded marketplace. It should also help automakers produce safer and better cars.