BACKGROUND: The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that a new mode of ventilation (pressure-regulated volume control; PRVC) is associated with improvements in respiratory mechanics and outcome when compared with conventional volume control (VC) ventilation in patients with acute respiratory failure. We conducted a randomised, prospective, open, cross over trial on 44 patients with acute respiratory failure in the general intensive care unit of a university hospital. After a stabilization period of 8 h, a cross over trial of 2 x 2 h was conducted. Apart from the PRVC/VC mode, ventilator settings were comparable. The following parameters were recorded for each patient: days on ventilator, failure in the assigned mode of ventilation (peak inspiratory pressure > 50 cmH2O) and survival. RESULTS: In the crossover trial, peak inspiratory pressure was significantly lower using PRVC than with VC (20 cmH2O vs 24 cmH2O, P < 0.0001). No other statistically significant differences were found. CONCLUSIONS: Peak inspiratory pressure was significantly lower during PRVC ventilation than during VC ventilation, and thus PRVC may be superior to VC in certain patients. However, in this small group of patients, we could not demonstrate that PRVC improved outcome.