Any paleontologist will tell you that dinosaurs are extinct, killed off in the aftermath of what they believe was a massive meteor strike 66 million years ago.

The folks at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), however, would beg to differ, and their proof is the collection of smashed cars displayed at their headquarters. Names like Chevrolet Venture and Mazda CX-9 may not evoke the kind of fear you’d feel coming face-to-face with a Tyrannosaurus rex, but once you’ve seen what these popular vehicles look like after the IIHS’s team of crash test engineers got their hands on them, you might think twice about going for a ride in one.

A non-profit funded by the American auto insurance industry, the IIHS dedicates much of its time and budget to evaluating the crashworthiness of the cars and trucks that millions of North Americans buckle themselves into each day. If you’ve ever seen the term “Top Safety Pick” referenced in a new car advertisement or heard it mentioned by a salesperson, that’s the label the IIHS bestows upon vehicles that best survive its harsh regime of crash tests.

Thanks to Subaru (a company eager to promote its status as the only automaker whose full lineup is recognized as Top Safety Picks), I was among the first group of Canadian writers to tour the IIHS’s vehicle research centre and witness firsthand the crashes, booms and bangs that happen at one of the most interesting workplaces in the auto industry.

Founded in 1959, the IIHS’s original purpose was to support other organizations’ vehicle safety research projects. About a decade later, it changed its focus from crash prevention to research on vehicle crashworthiness and how roadway designs contribute to driving-related deaths and injuries.

In 1992, the IIHS opened its vehicle research centre in rural Ruckersville, VA, and we’re not kidding about the rural part: the last 15 minutes of the bus ride from our hotel in nearby Charlottesville saw our driver dodge wayward cows before delivering us to the centre’s front door. Outside, it’s a peaceful spot, surrounded by swaying trees filled with singing birds. Inside, it’s a much different story.

In 2009, the IIHS celebrated its 50th birthday in a manner perfectly suited to a bunch of people who destroy stuff in the name of science: to demonstrate how far vehicle crash safety had come in the previous half-century, they lined up a pair of Chevrolet family sedans—a 2009 Malibu and a 1959 Impala – and crashed them into each other, head-on. The resulting carnage is the first thing you see when you walk in the front door, and if you think the video footage is dramatic, it pales compared to an up-close look at the cracked-up cars themselves.

We were treated to a comprehensive tour of the centre, but the highlight was watching a 2016 model (which we can’t name until the IIHS analyzes test data and compiles its results) put through the most recent addition to the crash-test roster, the small-overlap frontal test.

As one of two frontal crash evaluations the organization performs on every vehicle it rates, the small-overlap test sees the car hooked up to an under-floor propulsion system much like a slow-motion version of the catapults used to launch planes from an aircraft carrier’s deck. That system accelerates the car to 40 mph (about 60 km/h) and smashes the vehicle’s front corner, to a quarter of its width, into a fixed concrete barrier.

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