The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this year that it will undertake the first major update to its vehicle safety ratings in seven years. The new program will continue to assess passenger cars, pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, and vans on the five star scale, but will add an overall safety rating that combines the scores of several crash tests.

The new regulations, to be administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), will take effect for the 2010 model year and will also include new front-end tests and a test in which a vehicle strikes a pole sideways to simulate the wrapping of a vehicle around a tree. Female crash test dummies will also make their debut in the safety-testing program and will be used to represent both women and small children. Additional measures will also include testing for leg injuries and reporting whether vehicles have safety technology.

The new criteria should make it more difficult for vehicles to attain the maximum five star rating. Under the current system, nearly 90 percent of vehicles score the maximum five stars, and many automakers feature that safety rating in their advertising.

For more on the new improvements to the crash test program, see here.