Guardrail Maker Walks Out On First Day Of New Crash Test

PHOTO: The first crash test in a new round of guardrail safety tests put on by the Virginia Department of Transportation in Adelanto, Calif., Sept. 17, 2015.PlayABC News
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New crash tests for one of America's most widely used guardrails proved contentious Thursday even before the test vehicle's engine revved.

After days of loud bickering between guardrail maker Trinity Industries and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) about a set of crash tests to be conducted on what Trinity insists is an already-tested, tried-and-true guardrail system, Trinity representatives decided to walk out of the testing facility.

Another test is scheduled for today and a spokesperson for Trinity told ABC News it is unclear if company officials will return.

The protest caps a testy week that saw Trinity taking out ads in major media publications to publicize their criticisms of Virginia officials. The guardrail system, called the ET-Plus, has already been tested by the federal government, Trinity notes, and has passed -- though critics called one of the test results into question.

VDOT officials maintain that the new tests are being conducted in the interest in safety, they describe the ET-Plus as an unapproved guardrail end terminal currently installed on the state's roadways.

The ET-Plus was the subject of an ABC News investigation that included allegations from crash victims and critics of the guardrail that the ET-Plus was quietly modified in 2005 in part to save Trinity money and Trinity failed to alert state and federal safety officials until years later, when the guardrails were already on highways across America. The modified guardrails, the accident victims and critics say, are more dangerous and are responsible for a number of gruesome dismemberments and deaths.

Trinity officials have maintained that the company's guardrails are safe and point to successful crash tests done in late 2014 and early 2015 as evidence. Some critics, including VDOT, said those tests weren't expansive enough.

So VDOT ordered their own tests, to be conducted in the middle of the southern California desert at a facility called KARCO, about 90 miles inland from Los Angeles. It's dusty and remote, reachable by dirt roads that test a car's suspension. It's also 2,500 miles and change from VDOT offices on the East Coast. VDOT spokesperson Marshall Herman told ABC News KARCO was chosen because it is an "impartial" facility with no ties to guardrail manufacturers.

ABC News is the only media present but unlike the federal tests conducted on Trinity's ET-Plus in San Antonio in December and January, cameras are allowed to record these. Herman said the agency is striving to be transparent.

After days of terse communications between Trinity and Virginia officials about the company being allowed to inspect the set-up, Trinity had been allowed two hours Thursday morning and then given an additional hour.

Trinity would later call this inspection time the company was allowed "limited" and "cursory."

But after the inspection, Trinity's people left and did not return to see Thursday's crash test.

VDOT officials declined to comment on how the first test went and said they will not comment until until all of the tests completed in early October.

In emails Thursday afternoon, Trinity spokesman Jeff Eller, who VDOT did not allow to attend the test, called the set up "clearly flawed." It didn't comply with testing standards, he said. The unit VDOT was testing was not even a complete ET-Plus system, he added.

Eller has blasted VDOT for their alleged lack of transparency, for not providing Trinity with information about the testing, which he says suggests they won't stand up to scientific reviews.

The VDOT has an agenda, Eller wrote to ABC News, "To make the guardrail end terminal they tested today appear to fail... That is why Trinity decided today not to participate in today's crash test."

Herman, of the VDOT, disagreed.

"This is about the safety of motorists in Virginia. That is why we're out here," he said.