Consumers shopping for a fuel-efficient vehicle will probably gravitate toward smaller cars. But by doing so will they put themselves at risk in the event of an accident?

The cold hard facts show that smaller, lighter cars are generally less safe than larger heavier cars. However, there is still a lot you can do to choose the safest small cars. But first, let's start with a little background.

Assuming you're a safe driver, your chances of getting in an accident are really in "the other guy's" hands. You are driving across an intersection and get broadsided by someone running a red light. Your odds of survival, or avoiding injury, are up to the design of the car and the safety equipment you've chosen. At that instant you will hope you have made a good decision and chosen a safe car.

Still, you can't protect yourself against every danger. And life is full of trade-offs. You want to save oil and reduce emissions. But you also want to be safe. What do you do? You choose the safest car you can afford that also provides good gas mileage. Here are a few factors to help guide your decision.

The keys to a car's ability to keep you alive during a crash involve safety equipment, the vehicle's weight, and its resistance to rollover. While small cars don't roll over easily, they lack weight and are less likely to have advanced safety features like stability control or full side curtain airbags.

Furthermore, the numbers don't bode well for small cars.

In the latest crash figures available from 2003, provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (see chart below), there were 142 fatalities per million registered vehicles for the smallest cars. That figure drops to 108 fatalities for the next larger class of cars. For large sedans, that number drops to 61 per million. For small SUVs, the figure was 75 deaths per million as compared with 62 for large SUVs. For pickups, totals increased to 124 per million for small trucks and 102 per million for large.

Clearly, larger cars tend to have fewer fatalities. But remember to put these figures into perspective. These figures are comparing the differences per million registered vehicles.

Interestingly, when reviewing the data on pickups, the totals rise even as size increases. Experts say this is because of the people who tend to drive each segment. Younger males tend to be the most likely to be involved in serious accidents while more seasoned drivers with families tend to be more risk averse when driving.

"Pickup trucks tend to be driven by young males," said Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia. "Smaller SUVs tend to be driven by women and that has been found to lower the totals."

Meanwhile, large sedans, which are both heavier and better equipped, show the lowest totals. Still, how you drive is obviously an important factor in the process.

You may be asking, "But what about my crash test rating? Doesn't my five-star rating equal the five-star rating of a truck?"

The answer is no.

The first place most people go for safety information is the famous government crash test "star" ratings available at, or the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, which rates crash tests from "Good" to "Poor" based on the driver's ability to survive a crash.

But these ratings are only useful to compare cars within the same size class. A "Good" rating for a small car doesn't mean it will perform as well in a crash as a "Good" large sedan would.

"They are meant to be used to compare crashes with vehicles of similar size," Lund said. "You can't really go between the segments with these ratings."

The numbers show that you are far more likely to survive an accident if your car is highly rated, no matter the size. This is good news for the small car buyer who is looking for good fuel mileage.

For example: According to the IIHS, if you were to be traveling in a car that was rated "Poor" and got hit by a car rated "Good," you would be three times more likely to be killed in the accident (if there was a fatality) than the other driver. Similar numbers from NHTSA bear out the same outcome, meaning the lower the crash test rating, the more likely you are to be seriously injured in an accident.

With safety as a growing concern for car shoppers, more and more manufacturers are touting their crash test ratings in ads to pull in buyers. Honda even started putting crash test scores on the window stickers of new cars at dealerships.

Low crash test ratings simply aren't acceptable to most consumers. Be sure to review ratings before you buy and make your decision accordingly.

So how can you get acceptable safety and good gas mileage? By investing in as many advanced safety features as you can afford in your small car. At the top of your shopping list should be antilock brakes and side-impact airbags. These features can sometimes be hard to find but are not particularly expensive. Antilock brakes allow you to drive your way out of an accident, particularly on slick road surfaces. Experts also say it is advisable to buy a car that can easily accelerate from zero to 60, in under 11 or 12 seconds, so you can manage tricky merging situations in high traffic areas.

This article has focused on the physics and statistics of auto accidents. By far the biggest factor in overall safety is you, the driver. The best way to avoid injury is to be a good driver and not get in an accident to begin with.

Driver deaths per million registered passenger vehicles 1-3 years old, 2003
Vehicle Size
Car — Mini
Car — Small
Car — Midsize
Car — Large
Car — Very Large
Pickup — Small
Pickup — Large
Pickup — Very Large
SUV — Small
SUV — Midsize
SUV — Large
SUV — Very Large
*Insufficient exposure for estimating reliable death rates

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