01/18/2012 10:31 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Gas-Sipping Cars Drive Away With Top Safety Ratings

When it comes to cars, my husband and I won't trade on safety.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the Obama administration’s proposed 54.5 miles-per-gallon carbon pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. And who doesn't feel a real sense of American pride to learn of the renewed optimism and drive to innovate that NRDC"s Roland Hwang said is on display at the Detroit Auto Show this month.

I'm thrilled with the jobs this means, and the revenues it will generate for the industry and the country. I love that I could drive from NYC to Chicago without refueling, and that improved fuel efficiency will reduce our nation's vulnerability to oil price shocks and our contribution to climate pollution.

But when my husband and I go to buy a car, our money is on the one with the best safety record. Which, as it turns out, could very well be the more fuel efficient car.

Saving at the pump no longer means skimping on crash protection. According to new research by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, hybrids have a safety edge over their conventional counterparts. On average, researchers found, "the odds of being injured in a crash are 25 percent lower for people in hybrids than people traveling in nonhybrid models."

What's changed? For hybrids, it's the weight. "Hybrids on average are 10 percent heavier than their standard counterparts," says Matt Moore, HLDI vice president and an author of the report. "This extra mass gives them an advantage in crashes that their conventional twins don't have."

For a new generation of more fuel efficient non-hybrids, good design and materials are what matter, more so than weight. That's why "regulators have adopted standards that are indexed to vehicle size," Hwang explains at a House Subcommittee Hearing on the Historic Clean Car Standards. Then there is "no regulatory incentive to downsize" as a way to meet the rules.

"One of the best examples is the next generation iconic SUV, the Ford Explorer," Hwang points out. "Keeping size essentially the same, Ford has taken out 150 pounds of weight from its next generation, by moving to a car-like chassis and lighter weight materials. And with an Ecoboost engine, the vehicle is 20 to 30 percent more fuel-efficient, with no compromises in safety."

Drivers can expect more of this type of innovation from automakers as a result of the national program. Crossover Utility Vehicles” (CUVs) are another example of a new generation of car that has much lower safety risk than truck-based SUVs of similar size. Crossovers use lighter-weight unibody construction, which also has safety advantages including a lower center of gravity that reduces their propensity to roll over, and less rigid frames and lower bumpers that make them less dangerous to the cars they hit. Many drivers may be unaware that besides smaller crossovers like the Ford Escape, Honda CRV and the Toyota RAV-4, many of the most popular mid-size “SUVs” are now “CUVs”, including the 2012 Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango. To view models, check out the slideshow.

My husband feels safer in a CUV, but if I had any say in the matter (which to be honest I don't), I'd steer us toward the new Chevrolet Spark. This minicar recently earned the maximum five stars in the Korean New Car Assessment Program's (KNCAP) frontal crash test, offset frontal crash test and side crash test. The Spark also scored a four-star rating in pedestrian protection, with the best scores ever for any car category. As someone who walks far more than she drives, I'd say that safety test should turn heads.