Investigative Unit 2014: Deadly Impact, Guardrail Investigation

Most states have halted installation of controversial guardrail.

— -- [As 2014 comes to a close, the ABC News Brian Ross Investigative Unit looks back on some major reports over the last year.]

A popular highway guardrail system found on roads across the country was quietly modified years ago, without the knowledge of federal and state officials, in a way that critics say made the safety devices potentially deadly.

The modified guardrail, called the ET-Plus, was the subject of an ABC News “20/20” investigation in September that looked into allegations from crash victims that the modified guardrail end terminal could malfunctioned when struck from the front by their vehicles. Rather than ribboning out and absorbing the impact as designed, the modified, 4-inch guardrails “locked up” and speared straight through the cars, severing the motorists’ limbs in some cases.

Jay Traylor of North Carolina lost his left leg when his truck hit a modified ET-Plus earlier this year and the guardrail pierced through the cabin.

“Had the guardrails done their job, I probably would have walked away just going, ‘damn, I’m an idiot,’” Traylor told ABC News.

The ABC News investigation discovered that in a company email, the manufacturer of the guardrail end terminal, Trinity Industries, noted that the modification would save $2 per guardrail – approximately $50,000 per year. At the time, the company didn’t notify federal or state transportation departments, which are responsible for certifying the guardrails.

Nearly a decade later in October, a federal jury in Texas found Trinity had defrauded the government and ordered the company to pay $175 million in damages – a figure expected to triple by statutory mandate. Following the verdict, a slew of states announced that use of the ET-Plus would be halted on highways. More than 40 states have now suspended the device and one state, Virginia, plans to remove them entirely.

Also in October, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, called on the FHWA, questioning the agency’s decision to keep the devices on the approved list after concerns were raised in 2012.

“I am gravely concerned about the effectiveness of this device and the conduct of Trinity in failing to disclose what could be a material change to a critical safety product. I am also very concerned that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) failed to protect against potentially fatal defects in this product and that it continued … to assume and represent to state transportation agencies that the product was safe,” Blumental wrote. “States and motorists must be able to rest assured the product is safe or take additional action should the product fail to meet safety standards.”

The federal government has since ordered a series of crash tests to determine whether the ET-Plus should remain eligible to be on highways across the country. Three of those tests have been completed in San Antonio, with the remainder to be conducted in January 2015. An ABC News producer is one of two media observers who has attended the crash testing and has reported that the device did not appear to fail the tests conducted so far.

Trinity Industries has maintained that the modified ET-Plus devices on the roads today are safe and has said that the ongoing safety tests will prove it.