A gasoline-powered, big-block V8 housed in a tin shack fires up, the sound of its open exhaust echoing across the desert floor. Anyone passing by might mistake the sound for a local putting the finishing touches on a demolition derby racer, but what's about to happen is a totally different kind of crash.
Sitting opposite the tin shack is another, cleaner looking shed, mounted on wheels and fitted with a large air-conditioning unit. Exactly 1,000 feet of concrete separate the two small buildings. Several workers in coveralls and hard hats roll the second building, the "cool room," away, revealing a silver SUV. It's sitting sideways, covered with tape, wires and other equipment, and it's hooked up to a large tow cable. In the driver's seat, is what looks like a department store mannequin.

Another worker sprays water onto the concrete strip, as the noisy V8 revs up and pulls the tow cable taut. Gradually the SUV starts sliding sideways, its tires are on skids, until it reaches 20 miles per hour. It doesn't seem like the vehicle is going that fast, but when the truck slams into a 10-inch diameter, stationary metal pole, driver's side first, the collective gasp of the onlookers says it all.

Had this been a real accident, the SUV would be totaled and at the very least, the driver would be having a bad day.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been conducting crash tests on passenger cars for more than 30 years, but this is a new one. This new side pole test is just one of many changes in NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Rating System, which is being unveiled this week. The goal, says NHTSA is to make the safety ratings more meaningful.

While the current system has done its job by nudging automakers to build safer cars, now it's time to raise the bar a little. The more stringent tests also include more crash data dummies, including small- and medium-sized adults, to more accurately measure how different people fare accidents. NHTSA will also collect more information from those crash dummies including the likelihood of injury as measured from the chest, head, neck and legs. NHTSA will also give tested vehicles an overall safety rating, which is a combination of the frontal and side crash tests and rollover resistance.

Testing is being conducted by private companies that NHTSA contracts with, but it's the agency that dictates the parameters of the crash testing all the way down to the temperature of the vehicle, hence that moveable cool room. The idea is to keep each test consistent no matter where it's conducted, since even the slightest variation could net different results, so all tested vehicles are kept at a temperature of 70 degrees. The test we witnessed was conducted at a testing facility at Karco Engineering in Adelanto, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

For the 2011 model year, NHTSA will crash and evaluate 55 vehicles: 24 passenger cars, 20 sport utility vehicles, 2 vans, and 9 pickups. Each year, NHTSA rates a sample of new vehicles that are predicted to have high sales volumes, those that have been structurally redesigned, or those with improved safety equipment. The first batch of cars to be tested using the new, more rigorous criteria include volume sellers like Honda's Accord, Civic and Pliot, Nissan's Altima, Murano and Sentra, Toyota's Camry, Highlander and Prius, plus a handful of other popular vehicles.

The cars are not supplied by the manufacturers, but purchased by NHTSA from various dealerships across the country. While this uses taxpayer money, you might be surprised at just how little: The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) will cost about $12 millon dollars this year. That's roughly a third of what NBC paid Conan O'Brien to leave the Tonight Show a few months ago.

If there's a problem with the new 5-Star test it's that the 2011 results cannot be compared to the previous 5-Star system, so crosschecking safety ratings against a 2010 model simply won't work. This will certainly be confusing at first, but as time goes by and NHTSA works its way through the long list of passenger cars and light trucks, the result will be a more dynamic rating system and more empowered consumers. To further assist car buyers, NHTSA is launching a public education campaign surrounding collision avoidance systems like lane departure warning, stability control, and forward collision warning systems.

Crash tests and star ratings might not get you fired up the same way a new HTC phone does and certainly no one plans to broadside a 10-inch pole. But think of it this way: Your tax dollars are funding the 5-Star program, so you might as well reap the benefits of it. For more information on the new five-star safety system or to look up results for a specific car, visit NHTSA's Safer Car web site (www.safercar.gov), where all the crash test information can be found.