-- Five months after passing federally-ordered crash tests, the controversial guardrail blamed for dozens of deaths and injuries is being tested again, this time by a U.S. state which has been aggressively investigating the highway product.
According to a document obtained by ABC News, Virginia’s Department of Transportation (VDOT) has been working out details to test the safety of Trinity Industries’ ET-Plus system, starting in mid-September. The ET-Plus guardrail system was the subject of an ABC News investigation last year, which examined allegations from accident victims that the guardrail’s design was flawed, making them potentially dangerous to motorists when struck from the front with a vehicle.
Marshall Herman, a spokesperson for VDOT, confirmed to ABC News that the agency “has decided to move forward with a plan to conduct additional crash tests” on the ET-Plus.
“Everything the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) does is for the single purpose of looking out for the safety of the motoring public,” Herman added in a statement.
The state tests will commence just months after federal officials passed the guardrail end terminal in a series of safety tests, amid cries from critics that the testing had been flawed.
Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officials announced in March that the ET-Plus had passed eight crash tests, ordered after Trinity Industries of Texas was found by a federal jury 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. Trinity has said it plans to appeal the federal verdict.
The passing of the federal crash tests allowed the guardrail system to remain eligible to be used on American highways. But controversy continued to swirl around the eighth and final test, which critics called 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. The government’s passing grade of that test spurred outrage in Congress.
That final test also fueled questions about transparency and integrity of the federal crash tests, as well as the relationship between FHWA and Trinity Industries, which Sen. Richard Blumenthal called “all too cozy.” In March, 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.”
In a statement to ABC News, Trinity Industries spokesman Jeff Eller maintained VDOT’s latest action is “aimed at only one product which has been proven to perform as designed.”
“We do not believe additional tests are needed. The ET Plus System successfully passed all eight Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requested tests. VDOT officials observed each test. Those tests were validated by an independent expert, Dr. Clay Gabler from Virginia Tech, and conducted under approved NCHRP 350 guidelines. The ET Plus has been installed on Virginia roadways for more than eight years and VDOT recently confirmed to the FHWA that the ET Plus end terminals are performing as expected,” the statement reads.
Officials in Virginia have been aggressive in investigating the highway product’s safety, counting as the first state DOT to declare it would remove the modified ET-Plus from its roadways. And last December, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a lawsuit against Trinity Industries, accusing the company of fraud and deceit surrounding what he called a “defective” product.
Trinity has flatly denied it committed fraud against the state and has filed a motion to dismiss the Virginia AG’s case. The company has continually maintained that the ET-Plus is safe, stating that the guardrail system has been successfully crash tested more times than any product of its kind.