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An adventure in the Blue Ridge

NBC's Lea Thompson shares the story behind all of those crash tests by the Insurance Institute, and how Dateline first started reporting them.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It was 1994. I boarded a plane for Los Angeles loaded down with my briefcase, roller bag, a soft drink and a pile of newspapers. I finally found my seat and plopped down, glad to have barely made the flight. The voice next to me said, "Hi Lea." It was Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

For the next four hours we talked about the new test facility the institute had just built and the sophisticated testing that was going to go on there. By the time we landed, I had talked O'Neill into giving us an exclusive look at it all.

That was the beginning of a 10-year adventure for me in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Institute's crash hall is in Ruckersville, Va., a place "hard by" the Appalachians, far off from most anyone and rolling in verdant green grass and hills as far as you can see.

The Institute, which is funded by auto insurers, buys the cars it crashes right off dealer lots; it loads them up with the most sophisticated dummies in the world; and then smashes these beautiful, new, sometimes very expensive, cars hard into a barrier, or crashes a barrier into them or slams the cars into each other. 

Most surprisingly, the car manufacturers don't fight back very much. They rarely question the injurynumbers or the Institute's conclusions. Instead, I've watched through the years as manufacturers rush to come up with new, safer designs so they can advertise the "good" ratings the Institute awarded them.

People always ask me what it's like to see and hear one of these crashes. I am always shocked at how violent and loud they are. You hear this thin whine that starts to grow way down at the end of the 600-foot runway. It picks up and becomes a whirring sound, then the car starts to move - faster, faster, faster - and then, ka boom! The car hits a 320,000 pound barrier, flies up in the air, it twists and turns. There is glass all over the place, and then everything goes quiet as people gasp and get their breath.

I've learned a lot of car lingo along the way. I thank all of the people at the VRC (Vehicle Research Center) for teaching me about Delta V's and MDB'S (moveable deformable barriers) - especially Brenda O'Donnell, who is all things to all of us down there. And, if Brian O'Neill ever wants to give up all those incredible toys he has in that crash hall and all that traveling he does to check in with car manufactures around the world, he most certainly could make it in television.

We've all seen a lot of high-speed crashes together, and I am still startled and amazed that anyone could survive a 40-mile-an-hour, almost head-on crash. Ten years ago when the Institute first started the offset crashes, there were a lot of crash test dummy "deaths" to report. Today, in almost all cars, those dummies can literally walk away -- if they were real humans.

But now, we are covering a whole new set of crash tests. They are the most violent I have ever seen and most "drivers" are not surviving these side impact crashes. But some are "living through it" - proof once again that cars can be built to protect the driver and passengers even when a 3000-pound SUV comes slamming into their heads.

The same crew of cameramen and soundmen have been watching with us all of these years. Our lead cameraman, Vince Gancie, says if he were an employee of the Institute he would be the fifth-highest in seniority there. He has put cameras behind dummies, under cars, on top, inside... he and his crew are always looking for that one "shot" that will make the story a little better.

Three Dateline editors have seen every one of these crashes -- on tape that is -- again and again and again. Gail Sargent, Tressa Verna and Ed Eaves have "cut" these stories just about every way you can imagine. And lots of Dateline producers have had a hand in these reports. Steve Eckert started them out, Mike Kosnar, John Armand, John Greco, Yolanda McCutchen, Karen McKinley, Maria Afsharian -- one or more of them head for the mountains almost every week to catch another crash or just watch a fender bender or hear another story about how this or that car "plumb just got away," smashed right through the crash hall and took off for "them thar hills..."