​Report lists cars with highest and lowest rates of deaths

WASHINGTON -- For years, crash tests have shown steady improvement in vehicle safety. Now a new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirms those findings.

"We've seen a lot of stories about recalls and people may be nervous about the vehicles, but the fact is vehicles are as safe as they have ever been," said IIHS President Adrian Lund.

According to the report, the chances of dying in a crash in a late-model vehicle in 2011 fell by 41 percent, compared to late-model vehicles in 2008.

Eight years ago no vehicle model had zero driver deaths, but nine different 2011 models have not had a single fatality. Six of those nine are SUVs.

"That is a real turnaround from a decade ago when SUVs weren't the safest vehicles on the road because they had a tendency to roll over," said Lund.

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An Audi goes through a crash test
IIHS

The big life-saver for SUV drivers is electronic stability control -- a system that automatically applies the brakes to individual wheels if it senses that a vehicle is starting to spin out of control. Lund says other crucial safety changes that have saved many lives include increased use of seat belts and airbags, and stronger structural designs.

But for some drivers, the report contains some bad news. The highest driver death rates are for the Kia Rio, the Nissan Versa sedan, and the Hyundai Accent.

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IIHS

"The dominant factor among the vehicles with the worst or highest death rates is that they tend to be the smallest vehicles on the road," said Lund.

We reached out to Kia, Nissan and Hyundai to give them an opportunity to respond to the report, but so far they have not had any comment.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.