Highway Guardrails Need Upgrade, Says U.S. Safety Agency

By | September 14, 2015

U.S. highway guardrail systems made by Trinity Industries Inc. and Road Systems Inc. have “safety performance issues” in some real-world crash scenarios, the Federal Highway Administration said as it urged a national overhaul of standards to better protect American drivers.

The regulator Friday released a report citing “performance limitations” of five guardrail products, three by Trinity and two by Road Systems. The agency found the models experienced performance shortcomings in side impacts and shallow-angle collisions with the guardrail’s end, sometimes resulting in penetration of the vehicle.

Trinity has faced scrutiny over the past year after a jury faulted it for not disclosing changes to its ET-Plus guardrail system about a decade ago. In June, the federal judge presiding over the lawsuit said the company must pay $663 million.

Dallas-based Trinity has said that the ET-Plus has been successfully crash-tested “more times than any product of its kind.” The company has appealed the verdict, and said it believes “the evidence clearly shows that no fraud was committed.”

Shock Absorber

The ET-Plus was designed to serve as a roadside shock absorber that mounts onto the ends of guardrails. More than 20 lawsuits allege Trinity’s revised version jams when hit, penetrating crashing cars instead of helping slow them. About 200,000 of the units are installed along U.S. roadways, the FHWA has said. Trinity’s modified ET-Plus has been tied by plaintiffs’ lawsuits to at least nine deaths.

In March, the FHWA gave a passing grade to the ET-Plus after a series of eight crash tests under older safety standards.

Nationwide Change

In Friday’s report, the FHWA and a coalition of state highway officials recommended nationwide adoption of more stringent safety criteria for newly installed highway devices, so as to screen for some of the identified vulnerabilities.

The report’s authors selected 161 crashes for detailed analysis, with a focus on instances involving fatalities, major injuries, rollovers, and severe outcomes including penetration of the vehicle.

All but 22 of the crashes involved a guardrail system made by Trinity. In 71 of those cases, the reviewers were able to identify the system in question as a modified ET-Plus, the agency said. Performance limitations resulted both from the nature of the crash as well as installation flaws, according to the study.

Vehicle Penetration

In some of the crashes, the guardrail pierced the vehicle, and in others, caused the car to rollover or decelerate suddenly. The authors said they didn’t have enough data to compare the relative safety of the different guardrail systems, but they were able to conclude that performance issues were not limited to the modified version of the revised ET-Plus.

John Durkos, a spokesman for Road Systems, said the Big Spring, Texas-based company’s products “out on the road right now have performed extremely well.”

Trinity’s Eller praised the regulator’s “thorough review” of energy absorbing guardrail systems, saying it supported the company’s position that the ET-Plus “is a robust end terminal system that performs as designed.”

The regulator conceded that its tests couldn’t cover all potential crashes, and that many factors can affect guardrail performance in the field.

“There are real-world impact conditions that vary widely from the crash test” scenarios, the report stated. “Within the roadside safety community, it is recognized that even with the ‘best’ practice of terminal design, with the wide variety of traffic and field conditions and applications, there will be crashes that exceed the performance expectations for the terminals.”

No Confidence

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has pushed for the FHWA to require removal of the ET-Plus from the nation’s highways. He said Friday that states have begun to re- test ET-Plus devices on their own as a “vote of no confidence in this agency.”

Virginia’s transportation department has said it will sponsor its own set of crash tests of the ET-Plus starting later this month. Two of the tests involve a vehicle hitting the end of the guardrail at a slight angle, which is one of the vulnerable scenarios identified by the federal report.

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