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This study is devoted to clarifying the mechanism of the surface-shear-wave attenuation peak observed during rotating bending fatigue of carbon steels. We have developed electromagnetic acoustic resonance to make a contactless monitoring of the attenuation throughout the fatigue test. The attenuation peak occurs at a fixed fraction to lifetime, being independent of the bending stress (0.49–1.20 of the yield stresses) and the carbon content (0.22–0.45 mass %). Low-temperature heat treatment reduces the peak attenuation back to the previous value, which indicates a dominant contribution of dislocations. Microstructure observations with transmission electron microscopy, surface crack study with replicas and the acoustic measurements show that a large-scale change occurs in the dislocation structure (persistent slip bands to cells) at the attenuation peak and that it is triggered by the inward growth of cracks. This change is completed in a short time, a few percent of the total lifetime. The acoustic-resonance technique can be an important means for the exact prediction of the remaining life of fatigued steels.© 2002 American Institute of Physics.