updated 1/30/2006 5:36:19 PM ET 2006-01-30T22:36:19

People love compact cars as gas prices soar, but there's a sobering cost: The government says they have the highest fatality rate.

Compacts had a fatality rate of 17.76 per 100,000 vehicles in 2004, followed by compact pickup trucks with 16.87 and subcompact vehicles with 16.85, according to a report Monday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Large vans had the lowest rate, 9.34, while pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles had rates of about 15 deaths.

The report examined fatality data from 1997 to 2004 to compare death rates among different types of vehicles. It reaffirmed past studies that found smaller and lighter vehicles more vulnerable to fatalities compared with their counterparts.

"You can never repeal the laws of physics, and a smaller, lighter vehicle is always at a disadvantage no matter how many safety features are built into it," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In crashes involving rollovers, mid-size sport utility vehicles had a fatality rate of nearly 10 deaths per 100,000 registered vehicles in 2004, giving it the highest rate among automobiles in rollovers. Full-size passenger cars had the lowest rate in rollovers.

Overall, the data found fatality rates mostly declining since the late 1990s in every vehicle classification. Death rates in all passenger cars dropped from 16.9 per 100,000 vehicles in 1997 to 14.2 in 2004.

"Manufacturers are constantly enhancing the performance of vehicles in crashes," said Rob Strassburger, vice president of safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

With gasoline prices well over $2 around the nation and more interest in fuel-efficient alternatives like compacts and hybrids, automakers are expected to offer more options in the economy car category.

The Power Information Network, an affiliate of auto industry analyst J.D. Power and Associates, expects compact and subcompact cars to grow from 33 vehicles currently to 40 in 2010.

Several small cars were on display at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit, including the Toyota Motor Corp.'s Yaris, Honda Motor Co.'s Fit and Nissan Motor Co.'s Versa. Sales of the Chevrolet Aveo, General Motors Corp.'s economy car, were up 21 percent in 2005, according to Autodata Corp.

Rader, whose organization has conducted similar studies, said even with "all the air bags in the world," smaller and lighter vehicles in a category typically have higher death rates than larger models in the same category.

A group representing SUV owners said rollovers represent a small portion of crashes and noted that the majority of people killed in rollover deaths were not wearing seat belts.

"The best barometer for consumers is to look at the overall fatality rate, not just one particular crash mode," said Ron DeFore, spokesman for the Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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