Virginia Becomes the Fourth State to Raise Questions About Guardrail Safety

Virginia transportation officials issue ultimatum to guardrail company.

October 14, 2014, 4:38 PM

— -- Virginia has become the fourth state to raise questions about the safety of some of the guardrails used on its highways, saying the company that produced the devices made changes to the design years ago without disclosing them.

In a letter dated Oct. 10 and obtained by ABC News, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) officials criticized a Trinity Industries subsidiary, Trinity Highway Products, which makes some of the guardrails that are used across the country, for making “undisclosed modifications to the ET-Plus [guardrail system] in 2005.”

“The modified ET-Plus is a different product than that approved by VDOT for use on Virginia roadways in 2000,” the letter says. “This different product has not been approved for use in Virginia by VDOT.”

The letter issues an ultimatum to Trinity, saying it has until the end of next week to conduct new tests of the ET-Plus system, for which VDOT officials must be present, and provide new test analysis and reports “including detailed product schematics for the system and the [guardrail] head, depicting all dimensions.” Otherwise, the letter says, the guardrails could be removed removal from the state's Approved Products List.

An ABC News “20/20” investigation in mid-September reported the 2005 design changes, among them the slimming of a piece of metal in the guardrail “head” from five inches to four. 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. According to an internal Trinity email obtained by ABC News, the change would also save the company $2 per guardrail – some $50,000 per year.

Trinity told ABC News for a previous report 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.

Three weeks ago two other states, Missouri and Massachusetts, announced they had halted use of the guardrails while they investigate further. Earlier this year 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.

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."

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

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