Controversial guardrails pass federally approved crash tests

(WISH Photo/Bennett Haeberle)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Controversial guardrails, which lawsuits allege have been linked to deaths and lost limbs, have passed a series of federally-approved crash tests, the Federal Highway Administration announced Friday.

The series of eight crash tests, conducted at a Texas facility in December 2014 and January 2015, are part of the Federal Highway Administration’s larger inquiry into whether the ET-Plus guardrails are safe and should remain on U.S. highways.

The approval of the tests can be seen as the completion of the federal government’s first step into its larger investigation, according to FHWA Acting Administrator Greg Nadeau.

“The devices tested in January and December are representative of devices left on the road… the measurements do not support allegations that Trinity manufactured a second version of the four-inch ET-Plus,” Nadeau told reporters during a teleconference Friday. “Our work will not stop, the FHWA is assessing the scale and scope of in-service performance evaluation of all guardrail end terminals that will include the collection of data from future crashes of the ET-Plus and other end terminals.”

Allegations had surfaced that Trinity had manufactured a second version of the ET-Plus guardrail that might have more easily passed the crash tests.

Earlier this week, the FHWA found conclusively that was not the case, releasing a report showing they had sampled more than 1,000 ET-Plus devices from five states and found conclusively that there was not more than one version of the device.

Nadeau was quick to point that out Friday, telling reporters that any “reasonable” assessment of the tests would “put that to bed.”

Trinity released a statement earlier this week, saying in part: “There is one version of the ET Plus® extruder head.  Any claims to the contrary are purely false and misleading. The ET Plus® is a robust end terminal system that performs as designed pursuant to NCHRP Report 350 criteria when properly installed and maintained.”

Concerns have also been raised, however, by whistle blowers and safety advocates, that the methodology used during the crash tests might have been flawed or that the cozy relationship between federal regulators and Trinity Industries would all-but-ensure the ET-Plus would pass the tests.

‘It’s not surprising at all that (the FHWA) would continue to manipulate the process, manipulate these tests to cover up their own failures,” Joshua Harman told I-Team 8.

Joshua Harman, a guardrail competitor and federal whistle blower who won a massive $175 million judgment against Trinity, told I-Team 8 the test results and the federal highway administrators can’t be trusted.

Harman’s lawsuit alleged that Trinity failed to disclose a one-inch design change to FHWA. That design change, lawsuits allege, can cause the guardrail head malfunction, jam up and force the metal guardrail to slice through cars like a spear, in some cases killing drivers or severing their legs.

Federal highway administrators admitted to reporters last fall that Trinity failed to disclose the change.

“I’ve lost my legs in wreck.. I think I’m going to die,” Jay Traylor can be heard telling a North Carolina dispatcher.

Traylor was among more than a dozen plaintiffs who sued Trinity, alleging the design change led to the amputation of both of his legs.

Harman says the crash test results won’t stop the potential for additional accidents.

“It’s important to realize, no matter what the outcome the FHWA says today, the fact is the victims will continue to occur,” Harman said. “So the exact circumstances that are happening on our roadways that’s costing live and limbs and for them to ignore that with total disregard for the safety of the travelling public — is disturbing, disgusting quite frankly.”

Trinity released a statement with regards to Friday’s news, stating: “The ET Plus® System has been successfully crash tested more times than any product of its kind. It has an unbroken chain of eligibility for federal-aid reimbursement from the FHWA.”

Nadeau said the FHWA work is not finished and that a more comprehensive report would be published later this summer.

Indiana has more than 4,000 ET-Plus devices. While more than 32 states have banned the device, Indiana did not. I-Team 8 has uncovered evidence that INDOT was replacing or repairing damaged ET-Plus guardrails in before the federal investigation has concluded.

Other states like Virginia have sued Trinity and have threatened to remove them from the highways and roads.

Questions remain

In a letter sent to the Government Accountability Office last week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D – New York, and five other Senators noted “the questionable” safety of certain roadside devices which the FHWA approved and provided grants to states for widespread utilization of these devices.

The letter goes on to request the Comptroller and GAO conduct an investigation to address seven areas of concern.

“In recent months, we have witnessed a host of troubling developments that call into question the safety of certain roadside devices known as highway guardrail end terminals,” the letter states. “We are committed to looking closely at this issue… we feel a particular responsibility to ensure that a strong and effective oversight exists. The developments over the past several months raise questions about the effectiveness of the current framework for evaluating the reliability and integrity of roadside hardware products, including guardrail end treatments.”

The letter goes on to identify seven areas they would like the GAO to investigate, including: the role the FHWA actually plays in ensuring safety and sufficiency of roadside hardware; the regulatory process for developing standards; the role the FHWA and others play in developing safety standards; mechanisms in place to mitigate conflict of interest among others.

In a news release that was attached to a draft of the letter, Sen. Blumenthal’s office writes: “controversial testing of FHWA-approved ET-Plus guardrail end terminals recently took place in Texas and a video of the eighth and final test has raised considerable concern by members of Congress and their constituents.”

Among the other U.S. Senators co-signing the letter include, Edward Markey, Sheldon Whitehouse, Cory Booker, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

In response to questions from I-Team 8, a FHWA spokewoman wrote:

“We welcome the interest of Members of Congress and the GAO review of the process for, and the FHWA’s role in, determining whether roadside safety devices meet the safety criteria adopted by AASHTO and followed by state DOTs.  We look forward to sharing the extensive research and analysis FHWA has conducted surrounding this process. ”

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