Dear Ace: I’ve often driven by the sign for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Ruckersville, but I’ve never been in the facility. Can the average Joe take a tour? I’d love to see some car crashes!—Tess Dumet
Dear Tess: Ace is sorry to report that the average Joe cannot, in fact, tour the IIHS Vehicle Research Center. But fortunately for you and Ace, members of the media can. So, after gassing up the Acemobile and buckling his seatbelt, Ace made his way to Ruckersville to give you a first-hand account of what goes on there.
For those not in the know, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is, as described on their website, “an organization dedicated to reducing the losses—deaths, injuries and property damage—from crashes on the nation’s highways.” The institute’s Vehicle Research Center is where cars are subjected to crash tests, which are used in determining the relative safety of vehicles on the market today.
Upon entering the testing facility’s lobby, Ace was struck by the sight of two mangled Chrysler LeBarons, which had been in a head-on collision. According to David Zuby, Senior Vice President of Vehicle Research, the accident was the first ever involving two vehicles that were each equipped with airbags. The drivers of both cars walked away unharmed.
And if that wasn’t enough to convince Ace of the center’s mission, the next stop was a display room that featured a number of smashed, dented, crunched and generally abused vehicles. Particularly enlightening was the display of what an SUV can do when it T-bones a mid-sized sedan. Think less “crash,” and more “annihilation.” Though to give the sedan its due, the SUV had a dent in its hood…from the head of the sedan’s dummy driver.
Crash-test dummies are integral to the research center’s mission. Ace could write about the variety of dummy sizes and shapes used to simulate real-life drivers and passengers, the articulated neck of the dummy used in whiplash tests, or perhaps the abundance of sensors in another. But in all honesty, seeing the room in which the dummies are stored gave Ace the biggest case of heebie-jeebies he’s ever had on the job (and that includes the time Ace went undercover on UVA’s frat row to uncover the secret of the IMP).
And it seems that Ace is not alone in his fear of these blank-faced creatures. According to the center’s staff, a Greene County sheriff responding to a false alarm in 1992 once mistook a dummy for a burglar hiding in the dark. Of course, while that dummy narrowly escaped being shot, it was soon strapped into a speeding car destined for a crash barrier—that’s gratitude for ya!
Employing 30 people, the Vehicle Research Center does some 70 crash tests a year. With an annual operating budget of about $2 million, the place is completely underwritten by auto insurers—and while they no doubt have a vested interest in keeping the cost of crashes low, Ace still cannot help but admire their goal of making cars safer. (And the obvious pleasure they get out of paying people to smash things.)
Just, please, Lord—don’t make him face the dummies again.