As gas prices continue to rise, the size of American vehicles is starting to shrink. But does a shift to smaller cars require a compromise on safety?

According to data published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), drivers of subcompact and compact cars are more likely to be killed in a multiple-vehicle accident, than those driving large cars, pickup trucks or SUVs. In terms of safety, size does matter. Larger vehicles are able to absorb more crash energy than smaller ones.

Russ Rader, IIHS Spokesman told Hybridcars.com, “The gap will remain until we figure out how to repeal the laws of physics. They dictate that all other things being equal, people in small, lightweight vehicles are always at a disadvantage in crashes with heavier vehicles.”

The data from IIHS suggest that consumers driving smaller, more fuel-efficient cars may be compromising some level of passenger safety. But the playing field is more level than it may first appear. Many small cars offer safety equipment that was not available until recently. This includes a full compliment of airbags, traction and stability control, and stronger occupant safety cage construction. Automakers, most notably Honda, have made features like rigid body more widely available—showing that occupants of smaller vehicles now have significantly higher survival rates in crash tests with larger vehicles. The most recent data from IIHS goes back to 2006 and earlier—prior to the very latest safety advancements.

Rader suggests that mid-size cars with efficient four-cylinder engines can offer the best of both worlds. Vehicles like the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Nissan Altima Hybrid, as well as the Toyota Prius, provide fuel economy that matches or exceeds compacts, while still being large enough to contend with an SUV in an accident. “The bottom line is that you don’t have to buy a tank to be safe on the road,” said Rader.

The disadvantage for small vehicles is only when considering multiple-vehicle accidents. According to IIHS data, pickups and SUVs are proportionally more likely than cars to be in fatal single-vehicle accidents, especially rollovers.