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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Millions of Americans will take to the highways this Thanksgiving week. For most, the journey will end safely; for some, it will be deadly. Last year, nearly 400 people were killed in traffic accidents over the Thanksgiving holiday. That's a tiny fraction of the 37,000 people killed in crashes last year.

Still, road deaths have declined sharply. And last year, the U.S. recorded the fewest highway deaths since 1961. This week, NPR is looking at different aspects of road safety. Our series begins with a look at the testing and technologies that are making vehicles safer. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Vehicle Research Center sits in the hills near Charlottesville, Virginia. In the lobby, two smashed Chryslers greet guests. Further inside are dozens of other wrecks, some more disturbing than others. The institute's Russ Rader is our guide.

Mr. RUSS RAIDER: When we did this test with the crash test dummy sitting in the driver's seat with greasepaint on the side of her head, you can see where her head was struck by the hood of the SUV, and that would've been a fatal crash in a real-world scenario.

NAYLOR: Today, we're going to witness another side impact crash test of a new Ford Ranger pickup. David Zuby is a vice president of the institute.

Mr. DAVID ZUBY (Vice President, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety): We're going to run into it with what we call a moving deformable barrier. It's going to come from that door behind you, running down the runway at 31 miles an hour.

NAYLOR: The Insurance Institute spends about a million and a half dollars a year buying new cars from area dealers and then crashing them - usually twice a week. The result, says Zuby, a safer, more crash-worthy car.

Mr. ZUBY: We were talking about the frontal crash test in 1995. Half the vehicles that we tested only earned a poor rating from us. Today, virtually every car we run in that configuration earns a good rating.

NAYLOR: The Insurance Institute has just released its latest list of top safety picks. It's a smaller list than last year because of a new test to determine a car's ability to withstand a rollover. And while technician Tyler Ayers painstakingly applies greasepaint to the face of a small female crash test dummy sitting in the Ford's cab�

Mr. TYLER AYERS (Technician): We got to be as light as we can because, especially with this dummy - it doesn't weigh very much - just push on it with your finger with enough pressure to, I'd say, turn the back of your fingernail white, could move it a degree. And so, you have to gingerly - you have to apply it, but very, very light.

NAYLOR: After the crash, technicians will note where the greasepaint leaves its mark, hopefully on the vehicle's airbags.

The crash test dummies are integral to the work of the Insurance Institute. They have their own lab where they sit in varying sizes and functions, awaiting their call to duty. Spare heads are lined up on a shelf. Institute Vice President Joe Nolan says the dummies don't say much but convey a lot of information.

Mr. JOE NOLAN (President, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety): This guy can measure the deflection in the chest. It's got sensors in the top, so you can measure forces wanting to rip the head off to the rear, to the left and up. So, bending this way, bending this way and bending that way.

NAYLOR: And, he says, they always come back for more.

Mr. NOLAN: They can take a huge beating. In fact, all of the parts are replaceable. And so you never have a spare crash test dummy to throw away, despite the hundreds of requests we get at Halloween for spare dummies that people want to put on their front porch.

Unidentified Man: Hey, Bob, can I get a status check on the vehicle, please.

BOB: Sir, vehicle power on; main battery voltage 12.9�

NAYLOR: Back in the crash test hall, preparations are just about complete for today's main event. The moveable barrier, kind of a battering ram on wheels, sits down a 600-foot-long hallway behind a pair of garage doors, as if there are worries it might escape.

Unidentified Man: Charging is now complete. Test will commence in four seconds. Three, two, one. You're on your way.

NAYLOR: The pickup and its dummy occupant sit all innocent and unaware as the barrier sits down the hall, a guided drone intent on destruction.

(Soundbite of crash)

NAYLOR: And just like that, it's over. Technicians with brooms sweep up the broken glass and check for fuel leaks. The side of the Ranger is pretty well stoved(ph) in, notes Joe Nolan.

Mr. NOLAN: Well, it looks like a lot of deformation and that makes it a real challenge for the air bag to protect the occupant.

NAYLOR: But according to the readout from the dummy's sensors, if there had been a person in the cab, she'd probably be okay.

As cars have gotten more crash-worthy, automakers are turning to technology to help drivers avoid crashes; electronics that prevent skidding and rollovers and cameras and radar that see objects drivers might hit. David Zuby:

Mr. ZUBY: Other cars, trees at the side of the road, what have you, and make calculations about how quickly am I approaching this and do we have time to apply the brakes and avoid the impact all together?

NAYLOR: Even with such high-tech safety systems, it's unlikely car crashes will ever be eliminated. But Zuby says with that as a goal, there's a chance of coming close.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, a look at how road design is changing to improve safety. Watch crash test videos and crash test dummies through the ages at NPR.org.

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