WASHINGTON, D.C. --- A Senate panel this week criticized new auto roof strength standards proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), saying that they offer little promise of significantly protecting motorists during a rollover crash.

The Associated Press reported that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said: "If we have a little increase in roof strength that doesn't result in a major decrease in fatalities and injuries, we've done nothing."

Coburn added that NHTSA should toughen its proposed standard or else Congress should write its own standard. However, since the meeting was held, NHTSA officials have indicated they are considering further toughening the proposed standard to satisfy Congress.

The hearing was held by the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, insurance and automotive safety, chaired by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark).

NHTSA has been working to update the 35-year-old regulation for vehicle roof strength for more than a decade. In January, the agency tightened its August 2005 proposal to require a two-sided roof strength test, the Detroit News reported. But automakers oppose the double-sided test and want more time to comply with a new standard.

NHTSA plans to issue a final roof strength standard proposal by the Congressional deadline of July 1.

Rollovers represent 3 percent of all crashes but account for one-third of all vehicle deaths.

According to the Detroit News, NHTSA's current roof-strength proposal would require that a roof withstand a force equal to 2.5 times the unloaded vehicle weight while maintaining enough head room for a buckled-in average-size man to avoid being struck  --- up over the current 1.5 times standard. NHTSA also would extend the requirements to include vehicles up to 10,000 pounds, up from the current 6,000-pound requirement.

NHTSA is also considering an alternative proposal that would require a single-sided test with a stronger overall roof strength of about three times. In 2005, NHTSA said that a three-times standard would cost automakers at least $1.1 billion more than the $95 million annually for the 2.5 requirement, the Detroit News reported.

Some lawmakers have also criticized NHTSA's proposal because it would make it more difficult for consumers to sue in state courts. Also at issue is the time-frame for new roof standard compliance. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers backs a multi-year phase-in schedule, rather than a requirement for full compliance beginning in the 2012 model year. The automaker trade group also contends that the double-sided test isn't necessary.

NHTSA has said that of the 10,000 rollover deaths each year, stronger vehicle roofs would save about 476 lives, compared to as many as 5,000 lives saved through electronic stability control -- a technology that could prevent the rollover from ever happening.