Instead of the current rear crash using a flat, rigid barrier at 30 mph, the proposed test would use a deformable barrier more representative of a typical vehicle's front end. It would strike the test vehicle at a speed of 50 mph, and would concentrate the crash on 70 percent of the rear end.

The current side impact fuel system integrity test would also be upgraded. Instead of using a flat, rigid barrier striking the test vehicle straight from the side at 20 mph, the test would be conducted at 33.5 mph with the deformable barrier.

"Vehicle fires only occur in about one percent of crashes, but their consequences are severe. In 1998, four percent of vehicle occupant fatalities occurred in crashes involving fire. These new tests can save lives and prevent terrible injuries," said Dr. Sue Bailey, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The safety agency estimates that up to 7 million new vehicles would be affected by this proposal at a cost of $5 or less per vehicle. There are about 57 fatalities and 119 serious injuries per year in this vehicle population. The estimate of benefits from this rule ranges from 8 to 21 lives saved annually, once all vehicles on the road meet the new tests.

The proposal would give manufacturers three years lead time to meet the new rear impact requirements and one year to comply with the side impact requirements. It would apply to all passenger cars, light trucks, sport utility vehicles and buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds.