Safety experts worry that consumers' new enthusiasm for smaller vehicles because of high gas prices could pose safety risks, according to Reuters.

Fewer SUVs and pickups driven for everyday use should reduce rollovers, experts agree. But cars are lighter, not as stiff and have less room inside.  When a car hits narrow, vertical fixed-object hazards like telephone poles, a front-end collision at higher speeds can rip the engine from its mounts and push it through the firewall into the occupants, says Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of interests that includes insurance companies.

Donaldson said the government must toughen crash tests and finalize a rigorous roof strength standard.

Rae Tyson, spokesman for the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said NHTSA is researching better crash protection as well as possible safety issues with batteries in hybrids and all-electric cars, and others that use biofuels.

Tyson said cars are well-equipped and safer than during the last fuel-driven consumer shift to smaller vehicles in the 1970s when the death rate spiked.

Jim Vondale, Ford's director of safety, said the automaker is learning more about making stronger vehicles in "smaller packages," trying to maximize energy they can absorb in crashes using higher-strength steel and other materials.

Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports, said automakers are "getting smarter" about design and are using more aluminum and forged alloy materials that are strong, lighter and more expensive than steel, according to Reuters.