7 of the deadliest cars on the road

Which cars carry the greatest risk of fatal accidents? If you said "smaller is more dangerous," you're on the right track. 

In latest Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of which car models sustain the highest rate of driver fatalities, the seven worst models were all what IIHS classifies as minicars or small cars. While this verifies the commonsense notion that such vehicles would fare worse in serious crashes, it also shows a surprisingly huge gap in fatalities between the smallest and largest cars on the road.

Of the seven worst, the Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Toyota Scion tC all have over 100 driver fatalities per million registered vehicle years. (A registered vehicle year is one vehicle registered for one year). The next four vehicles on the worst list -- the Chevrolet Spark, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta sedan and the Kia Soul -- all have fatality rates over 80 (see first table below).

By contrast, 11 vehicles -- mostly large and midsize cars and SUVs -- have zero fatalities by the same measure (see second table below).

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Irina Ivanova/CBS MoneyWatch; data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In model categories, four-door minicars had a rate of 87 per million registered vehicle years versus six for the lowest category, four-wheel drive large luxury SUVs. That's roughly 15 times the risk of fatalities.

And it's something to consider when deciding what car to buy. Published crash test ratings compare vehicles in the same category against one another. But in real-world accidents, small cars often will be colliding with bigger vehicles.

The IIHS study covers four years from the start of 2012 to the end of 2015, using the latest available data. It gives fatality rates for drivers of 2014 models but includes the same vehicles back to 2011 models. The study compares fatality figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with registration data from IHS Automotive (the IIHS data covers only drivers, given that every car in an accident has one of those but not necessarily any passengers).

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Irina Ivanova/CBS MoneyWatch; data from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The total number of annual highway deaths had been trending downward since the 1970s and fell sharply during the Great Recession. But that total has started rising again beginning in 2015 as the economy has improved, unemployment has fallen and Americans are driving more, according to IIHS. More driving generally results in more fatalities.

Previous studies showed death rates falling because of improved safety equipment in cars. "Vehicles continue to improve, performing better and better in crash tests," said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer. "The latest driver death rates show that there's a limit to how much these changes can accomplish without other kinds of efforts."

Remaining safety issues include distracted driving and driving under the influence, as well as speeding.

The IIHS report also speaks to the hope that self-driving vehicles can greatly reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. "The recent surge in crash avoidance technologies along with the development of autonomous vehicles has the potential to bring down crash rates," it said.

"However it will be decades before such technologies are present in all new vehicles," the IIHS added. "Vehicles with varying degrees of automation will be sharing the road with conventional vehicles for some time." 

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.