updated 8/19/2005 12:43:55 PM ET 2005-08-19T16:43:55

Federal officials, upgrading a longstanding auto regulation, proposed new rules Friday that would require automakers to build stronger roofs on vehicles in an effort to protect passengers in rollover crashes.

The proposal would apply for the first time to large sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks weighing up to 10,000 pounds, covering popular vehicles such as the Ford Expedition, the Chevrolet Suburban and the Dodge Ram. The current standard exempts vehicles over 6,000 pounds.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would also seek information from the industry and safety advocates on other ways to protect occupants in rollovers, including the potential use of improved safety belt technology.

Rollover crashes account for more than one-third of traffic fatalities. In 2004, 10,553 people died in rollover crashes, up from 10,442 in 2003. About 60 percent of the people killed were not wearing seat belts.

“It will take a comprehensive strategy to reduce the staggering number of rollover deaths on the nation’s highways,” said NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge. “Improving roof strength is an integral part of that plan.”

The proposal, an upgrade to a federal regulation that has been largely unchanged since 1971, would require roofs to withstand direct pressure of 2.5 times the vehicle weight, increasing the current rule of 1.5 times the weight.

The rule is expected to cost the industry from $88 million to $95 million annually and is projected to save between 13 to 44 lives per year. It could prevent 500 to 800 injuries a year.

The agency said an estimated 596 fatalities and 807 serious injuries are caused every year among people wearing seat belts who come into contact with a collapsed roof during a rollover crash.

Rollovers and the issue of roof crush have led to wide disagreement among the auto industry and safety groups. The industry has questioned whether strengthening roofs would provide additional protection, pointing to the high number of people killed in rollovers who were not wearing seat belts.

But safety advocates argue that when a roof is crushed, it makes safety belts less likely to work and the occupant is more likely to be ejected from the vehicle. They have pushed for stronger standards than those included in the government’s proposal.

Auto safety regulators have been working on the new proposal since 2001. Congress last month directed the government to issue a new roof-strength standard.

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