Controversial Guardrail System Passes Government Crash Tests

PHOTO: Helicopter footage shows the eighth crash test of the ET-Plus guardrail system.PlayABC KSAT San Antonio
WATCH Guardrail Maker, Critics Clash Over Crash Test

A widely-used guardrail system blamed by critics and accident victims for lost limbs and deaths has passed a series of new crash tests and remains eligible to be used on American highways, the government said today in a long-awaited decision.

But officials from the Federal Highway Administration cautioned that the agency's "work is not done," as it continues to evaluate a series of serious and fatal crashes involving the guardrail system that have been reported throughout the county.

The agency announced this week the formation of a task force that is currently reviewing actual crash data and will later determine if any further testing of the ET-Plus would be warranted.

The test results, however, were good news for the beleaguered company, Trinity Industries, that makes the guardrail system and recently lost a federal lawsuit which alleged they made changes to the design to save a few dollars but never notified the government.

The Trinity ET-Plus "meets the applicable crash test criteria," Federal Highway Deputy Administrator Greg Nadeau said this morning in a call with reporters, adding that a much-debated eighth and final crash test that appeared to show severe damage was also given a passing grade.

In a statement to ABC News, Jeff Eller, spokesman for Trinity Industries said "The ET Plus System has been successfully crash tested more times than any product of its kind. It has an unbroken chain of eligibility for federal-aid reimbursement from the FHWA."

The company has continually insisted that the tests have validated its long-standing position that their product is safe and performs as intended.

But critics of the guardrail system - and the testing process - reacted swiftly following the announcement.

"FHWA's unacceptable patterns of inadequate oversight unfortunately continues today," Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a statement to ABC News.

"The FHWA has given the ET-PLUS a passing grade after allowing the manufacturer to conduct sham tests rife with flaws."

"For more than three years, despite a growing chorus of concerns and regular red flags from dozens of states, a federal court, counties, and potential victims, the agency that attests to the safety of these guardrails - the FHWA - has done little to rid the road of these potentially dangerous devices," said Blumenthal.

The final results of the tests have been anticipated since late January, with all eyes on that eighth and final test, which critics of the ET-Plus guardrail system say was a “clear” failure.

In that particular test, upon impact, the small test vehicle appeared to be severely damaged on the driver’s side after striking the guardrail. Helicopter footage shot by a local ABC station captured the test and the impact – a sight Sen. Blumenthal told ABC News in February he considered “hideously shocking.”

“The damage done to the driver’s side is very simply supposed to not happen and so that final test is deeply disturbing and gives me strong reason to say there ought to be more testing,” said Blumenthal in the days after the test.

But in today's call, FHWA officials say they analyzed the probability of a lower leg injury in that crash and found it to be low - specifically, .03 percent.

Victims of accidents involving the ET-Plus have suffered lower leg injuries when the guardrail penetrated the vehicle and impaled them, sometimes causing total amputation.

Officials confirmed today that there was no penetration of the car by the guardrail in the final test.

Trinity president Greg Mitchell addressed the controversy surrounding the final test in a letter sent to state departments of transportation after the FHWA announcement, writing, "we are aware the eighth and final crash test will be the topic of much criticism and discussion."

"But let there be no doubt - the eighth crash test passed," the letter reads. "In the experts' opinion, occupants in this car would not have been seriously injured in this impact."

Sean Kane, a safety advocate who also works with plaintiff's lawyers suing Trinity, told ABC News he is disappointed but not surprised by FHWA's findings.

"Simply because it didn’t penetrate the vehicle enough to seriously injure the driver in that test should not mitigate concerns about this failure," Kane said.

The government ordered the eight crash tests after Trinity was found by a federal jury late last year to have committed fraud when it modified the ET-Plus guardrail’s end terminal a decade ago but failed to tell state or federal officials about the change at the time.

Accident victims and critics say the modified guardrail end terminal can malfunction when struck from the front, sending pieces of metal through the car and potentially killing or dismembering its occupants.

The ET-Plus and its potential hazard to American drivers was the subject of an ABC News investigation last year.

An update on the ABC News 20/20 report will air on Saturday, March 14.

When the new crash test plan was publicly announced last November, FHWA's Nadau made clear to reporters if the ET-Plus didn’t perform, it would revoke its eligibility for federal reimbursement when used on U.S. highways.

“This is pretty much pass-fail,” Nadau said then.

Prior to the crash test results, 42 states had frozen installation of new ET-Plus guardrails pending the results. There was no immediate word on how any of the states have reacted.

Questions about transparency and integrity of the crash tests – as well as the relationship between FHWA and Trinity Industries – have dogged the federal agency and last week, six U.S. Senators urged the Government Accountability Office to investigate FHWA following what they called “troubling developments regarding the FHWA’s evaluation of defective ET-Plus guardrail and end terminals.”

Jane Mellow, FHWA spokesperson, told ABC News of the Senators’ comments, "We welcome the interest of Members of Congress and the GAO review of the process for, and the FHWA’s role in, determining whether roadside safety devices meet the safety criteria adopted by AASHTO and followed by state DOTs. We look forward to sharing the extensive research and analysis FHWA has conducted surrounding this process."

Federal Highway Administration has posted video and technical data of all eight crash tests on its website.

Officials from the Department of Transportation, which oversees FHWA, have insisted that regardless of the final results, the investigation into the ET-Plus is far from over and that it will continue to look at information it has gathered from state DOTs and the public, including accident reports.