Two States Suspend New Guardrail Use, Cite Safety Concerns

Lawsuits allege change to guardrail design had life-or-death consequences.

September 25, 2014, 10:13 AM

— -- Transportation officials in two states said they are halting the use of a widely-installed guardrail end terminal that was the subject of an ABC News investigation while they further investigate potential safety hazards.

“Our internal observations, as well as our review of available information, indicates to us the ET-Plus guardrail end treatment is not performing as intended and could pose the risk of malfunctioning,” the Missouri Department of Transportation said today, referring to a newer version guardrail end piece. “Therefore, we are taking proactive steps to correct the situation. We are immediately stopping the further use of this product on Missouri’s highway system by taking it off of our approved products list, removing it from projects currently under construction and prohibiting its use on any future projects.”

Likewise, Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials told ABC News in an email Wednesday, “In light of a recent report raising questions about the performance of a specific guardrail end terminal, MassDOT has taken initial steps to halt the use of that end terminal while the agency conducts additional research.”

The Massachusetts state agency said that “if necessary, [it] will evaluate possible measures to repair or replace these end terminals already in use.”

The report referenced by the MassDOT was conducted by the University of Alabama-Birmingham and examined serious and fatal accidents in Missouri and Ohio. The study, first reported by ABC News, concluded that a redesigned version of a widely-used guardrail end terminal “placed motorists at a higher level of risk of both serious injury and fatality” than the original version. A MassDOT spokesman told ABC News this means no new ET-Plus model guardrails will be purchased for use on Massachusetts highways, nor will the guardrail be used to replace aging or damaged guardrails, while the investigation is ongoing.

The study was commissioned by the state of Missouri and The Safety Institute, a non-profit advocacy organization. However, Missouri transportation officials said their move today was not based on the University of Alabama-Birmingham report, but on their own internal review.

“Clearly I think there is a safety issue,” Sean Kane, President of The Safety Institute told ABC News. “It’s not just that study in isolation. What we’re seeing is real-world crashes around the country where the guard rails are not performing as intended.”

The ABC News investigation, which aired on “20/20” Sept. 19, reported that in 2005 Trinity Industries, the Texas company that makes the end terminals, changed the design of part of the guardrail end terminal -- shrinking a piece of metal from five inches in width to four. An internal company email, obtained by ABC News, showed that an official with the company estimated that the company would save $2 per guardrail with the change -- $50,000 a year.

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Lawsuits filed against the company allege that small change altered the way the guardrail reacted to being hit from the front. In several graphic cases, the guardrail speared straight through the vehicle – severing motorists’ legs -- rather than bending back as designed.

A spokesperson for Trinity Industries told ABC News in an email that the accuracy of the UAB study "is troubling as it uses statistically unsound data" that it claims is not representative of the guardrail end terminals that exist on U.S. highways. The email also notes a concern of conflict of interest in the study.

"(Trinity) would welcome a completely unbiased committee, duly commissioned and qualified to truly evaluate all end terminal products," the email states.

In response to the announcements from MassDOT and MoDOT, Trinity stated it intends to work with state departments of transportation to ensure they are "accurately informed regarding our product."

Trinity says it has a “high degree of confidence in the performance and integrity of the ET-Plus System…” and noted that the Federal Highway Administration has repeatedly accepted the ET-Plus System for eligibility on the nation’s highways. The company says design changes were made to enhance performance of the ET-Plus and not to save money.

Read Trinity Statement to ABC News

Massachusetts and Missouri are the second and third states to halt purchasing of the ET-Plus, at least temporarily. Earlier this year, officials from the Nevada Department of Transportation removed the guardrail end terminal from its “Qualified Products List,” meaning it would not purchase them for use on state highways as it reviews the product.

Nevada DOT told ABC News the step was “a procedural measure” after Trinity failed to disclose changes made to the ET-Plus, as is required by the state. Trinity has appealed that decision.

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