Reporter's Notebook: Going Inside Emergency Guardrail Testing

New crash tests demanded after guardrail co. judged fraudulent.

December 10, 2014, 1:48 PM

— -- Today, I'll be one of two reporters allowed to watch much-anticipated crash tests of a widely-installed, controversial guardrail end terminal, blamed for injuries and deaths around the country.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is looking to determine whether the ET-Plus guardrail system, made by Trinity Highway Products of Dallas, should continue to be eligible for federal reimbursement and whether the guardrails should stay on American highways. In October, a Texas jury found that Trinity had defrauded the government by changing the design of the end terminal nearly a decade ago and failing to tell federal or state officials at the time.

There are believed to be 200,000 of the Trinity ET-Plus guardrails currently installed throughout the U.S., and more than 40 states have already suspended installing more, pending the results of the new tests.

Trinity maintains that its product is safe and believes that the crash tests, the first of eight beginning today at a test facility in San Antonio, will prove it.

I can't take my cell phone in. I've been asked if I plan to wear any hidden cameras to the test site (I'm not). I've been told neither I nor the other reporter joining me can look at the end terminal up close or take measurements of it beforehand, despite reminders that this issue has resided for years in a discrepancy of inches.

We have been assured that everything has been signed off on by Federal Highway Administration officials. They've approved the facility, the end terminals -- secured from inventory at California's Department of Transportation (Caltrans) -- and the vehicles that will be colliding with the ET-Plus at 62 miles per hour.

The FHWA allowed Trinity to determine many of the circumstances for the test: the site of the testing, the origin of the end terminals to be tested, and who could come. Originally, no media was invited, even though FHWA Acting Administrator Greg Nadeau told reporters the federal agency had "communicated to Trinity [a] commitment to be as transparent as possible with this entire process."

Trinity representatives had notified reporters last week that the media would not be allowed at the testing. But on Monday, we received word that two journalists would be allowed to observe after all. But to be clear, the email stated, cameras - any recording devices of any kind, for that matter - would be strictly prohibited.

The ET-Plus system was the subject of an ABC News' "20/20" investigation in September. ABC News obtained an internal Trinity email in which a Trinity official estimated that making one of the 2005 modifications -- reducing a piece of metal in the end terminal from five inches to four -- would save the company $2 per end terminal, or $50,000 a year.

Critics, including victims of gruesome accidents, allege that the modifications that were not disclosed in 2005 can cause the guardrails to "lock up" when hit from the front with a vehicle. Rather than ribboning out as designed, the guardrail instead spears straight through the vehicle, severing limbs or even killing the vehicle's occupants.

Josh Harman, a competitor of Trinity's, sued the company for fraud, alleging it sold the states guardrail end terminals that were different than what the states believed they were buying. A Texas jury agreed and in October ordered Trinity to pay $175 million in damages, a figure that's expected to triple by statutory mandate. Trinity plans to appeal the decision.

More than 40 states stopped using the 4-inch ET-Plus. Many have decided to wait until the crash tests have been completed and take a cue from the FHWA on whether to resume use, but one state - Virginia - took a harder stance. In that state, they're planning on ripping them out of the roadways.

Trinity itself also announced it would not be shipping any new end terminals for use until after the crash tests.

After today, the tests are expected to continue for weeks with the results likely to be released at the end of January. Still, FHWA officials have told me this is not the end of the investigation. The agency insists it will look at "in-service performance" of the ET-Plus, which would include crash tests and presumably, incidents where drivers have been impaled by the end terminal.

ABC News plans on attending all eight scheduled tests.

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