US federal regulators have proposed a major overhaul of side-impact crash tests on cars and trucks.

The New York Times (NYT) said the new test procedures would reinforce the industry’s voluntary commitment, by the end of the decade, to equip almost all new vehicles with inflatable curtains and other side air bags that protect people’s heads.

But the government’s research raises doubts whether current designs for side air bags with head protection – some only protect the chest and midsection – are advanced enough, the paper’s report cautioned.

According to the NYT, the proposals include using crash-test dummies that, for the first time in government tests, would be equipped to measure injuries to the head, the most vulnerable part of the body in side-impact collisions. In another first, they also include using dummies to represent women and children of small size, who are at disproportionate risk in side-impact accidents, the report added.

Additionally, a new test design would better reflect the risks that people in cars face from the growing number of sport utility vehicles and large pickup trucks on the road, the newspaper said.

“Quite often, the person struck in the side had been doing everything right,” Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told the NYT, adding: “Driving sober, wearing their safety belt and going through a green light – only to get slammed in the side by a driver who ran a red light or ignored a stop sign.”

At a news conference, Runge reportedly referred to his experience as an emergency-room physician. “I thought many times over, during those years, that something should be done to protect people who were doing everything right and ending up with debilitating injuries and dying,” he told the NYT, calling the proposal the most important of his tenure.

The New York Times said the agency estimates that adding side air bags would save 700 to 1,000 lives a year and cost the vehicle industry $US1.6 billion to $3.6 billion.

According to the paper, in the test now used, a 3,000-pound barrier meant to simulate a passenger car is rammed at 33.5 miles an hour into the sides of cars and trucks weighing up to 6,000 pounds. The traffic safety agency reportedly proposed adding a test that would ram vehicles sideways into a fixed pole at 18 to 20 miles an hour; it would reflect the effects of crashes with taller vehicles, trees or utility poles, and be conducted on vehicles up to 10,000 pounds.

The NYT said the plans will not be made final until late next year after a comment period from the industry and the public though they have already passed through a review by the Office of Management and Budget.

If adopted, they will effectively force carmakers to do something they had promised to do anyway: install side air bags that offer head protection in most vehicles, the report said.

“Automakers are already ahead of the curve,” Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the New York Times, adding: “More than half of model year 2004 cars and light trucks are already available with head-protection air bags.”

But the newspaper noted that the industry will have to re-evaluate whether the air bags now in use can meet the proposed standards as research by the traffic safety agency showed that some vehicles offer poor levels of protection to shorter drivers and passengers, even with air bags.

“Small-size occupants, under 5 feet 4, are more at risk of serious injury than the average-size person,” Randa Radwan Samaha, the research programme director, told the paper, adding: “It looks like vehicles are not designed as well to protect these occupants.”