FHWA Grades Guardrail on a Curve

Last Friday the 13th was a very unlucky day for taxpayers – that was the day the Federal Highway Administration announced that we, the people, would continue to reimburse states that choose to install an energy-absorbing guardrail end terminal that has been maiming and killing us. That announcement was bundled in a package of technical papers designed to explain away the last of eight tests on the safety of the ET-Plus energy-absorbing guardrail.

Trinity ET-Plus Test Replicates Field Failures

​Look at the pictures of this week’s s field test of the controversial ET-Plus energy absorbing end terminal below: Do you see what we see? The curled steel ribbon shows that guardrail began to extrude through the feeder end, as designed, but apparently got jammed up in the chute. The rail folded back into a spear and almost penetrated the Geo Metro’s door:

FHWA Pulls a NHTSA on Guardrails

Wednesday, the Federal Highway Administration announced some big, big news: Trinity Industries will test its ET-Plus guardrails in a way that virtually guarantees a passing grade, thereby ensuring that the agency’s past decisions are validated.

 

The Safety Record confesses those were not the agency’s exact words. The FHWA said:

Industry Experts Urge FHWA to Test Trinity Guardrails Properly

Last Monday, a federal jury in Marshall, Texas forced the Federal Highway Administration to do what state directors of transportation could not – launch an investigation into the crashworthiness of the ET-Plus guardrail end terminal. The agency, which, two years ago accepted Trinity Industries’ old test reports and spent most of its efforts deflecting the concerns of state highway officials and the questions from journalists, ordered the Texas-based manufacturer of highway safety equipment to submit to a new testing regime.

States Start Dropping the ET-Plus Guardrail

In the wake of a study on the safety of energy-absorbing guardrail end treatments sponsored by The Safety Institute, Missouri and Massachusetts DOT officials have announced that they will no longer consider the ET-Plus, manufactured by Trinity Industries, as approved highway safety equipment and are dropping the design from current and future construction projects.

Safety Research & Strategies Wins FOIA Case Against Florida DOT

A Leon County, Florida state judge has found that the state Department of Transportation violated the Public Records Act when it allowed guardrail manufacturer Trinity Industries to review thousands of emails involving Florida state officials before releasing them to Safety Research & Strategies.

The stipulated Final Judgment, signed on September 16 by Circuit Court Judge Angel C. Dempsey of Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit, awards SRS $13,844.50 in legal fees and acknowledges that:

Are Trinity Guardrails Safe?

On June 8, Cynthia Martin and Richard Blaine Markland of Dayton, Ohio, were southbound on I-93 in Ashland, New Hampshire, when the sedan left the roadway and struck a guardrail. Those steel rails lining the highway are designed to execute a complex task: keep the vehicle from leaving the roadway without deflecting the striking vehicle back into traffic, while allowing it to safely ride down the crash forces.

But the ET-Plus guardrail that driver Cynthia Martin struck did not yield to her Subaru Impreza and peel away from the vehicle like a flat metal ribbon. Instead, it penetrated the occupant compartment at the passenger side wheel well, slicing Markland and Martin in the legs and knees. The spear formed by the folded guardrail terminal end cap sheared Markland’s knee caps and caused both to sustain serious fractures. Both have undergone multiple surgeries to repair the damage. Markland is still in the hospital two months later.

“I know we spun around,” Markland said. “The guardrail had come into the car. Cindy was feeling a lot of pressure on her leg. My right leg was an open fracture with 4-6 inches of bone exposed. My right foot was trapped between the guardrail and the airbag, and some flesh was strewn across the inside of the car. The guardrail pushed a dent in my knee area. I knew something was wrong. Seeing my leg in that condition, I was screaming.”

The Martin incident is just the latest in a string of crashes in which an ET-Plus guardrail failed to perform properly, with devastating results for motorists and their passengers. But, according to Federal Highway Administration communications with the chief engineer of the New Hampshire state department of transportation, it never should have happened. Documents released as a result of a Safety Research & Strategies lawsuit in federal court, show that the FHWA and Trinity have devoted considerable energies to tamping down allegations that a 2005 dimensional change to the guardrail end terminals have turned these highway safety devices into weapons, rather than seriously investigating them.

Dallas-based Trinity, the globally dominant producer and seller of guardrail systems, has been battling these accusations since 2012, when Joshua Harman, president of a competitor company, SPIG Industries, of Bristol, Va., charged that sometime between 2002 and 2005, Trinity modified the design of its original guardrail end terminal design, the ET-2000, causing it to fail in crashes and injure and kill occupants in striking vehicles. 

These allegations have been the subject of news stories and civil liability, patent infringement, fraud and freedom of information lawsuits. The stakes are high. State departments of transportation buy highway safety equipment from a list of vendors whose products have been crash-tested and approved by the Federal Highway Administration; the FHWA reimburses states that use approved equipment. So, the FHWA’s acceptance is critical to a manufacturer’s business. States rely on FHWA certification as an indication that the equipment performs adequately. Without knowing it, motorists also depend on the federal agency’s imprimatur when they crash into a guardrail – to get the best chance of surviving the crash safely.

Unlike other regulatory approvals from other agencies, such as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration or the Food and Drug Administration, there is no avenue for consumer or the state to resolve defect issues. The FHWA has no enforcement power, expect to withhold its acceptance letter. The New Hampshire crash and others like it demonstrate the weakness of this “system,” when it breaks down.

The Background

In the 1960s guardrail designs used blunt ends that acted like a spear, penetrating the vehicle occupant compartment in a crash. The turned-down twist design of the 1970s buried the exposed ends, but acted like a ramp in a crash, causing vehicles to rollover. Today’s preferred design is the Energy-Absorbing End Terminal, which absorbs the crash energy, bends the end terminal away from the vehicle, and extrudes it through a slot into a flat metal ribbon.

SRS Sues Florida DOT for Guardrail Docs

Safety Research & Strategies, an automobile and product safety research and consulting firm based in Rehoboth, Mass. filed an open records lawsuit in Florida state court, alleging that the state’s Department of Transportation violated the Florida Public Records Act when it withheld documents pertaining to its relationship with guardrail manufacturer Trinity Industries pending a review by the company.

The lawsuit, filed today by Florida State Representative Matthew L. Gaetz  (R-Dist. 4) asks the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit for Leon County to compel the FDOT to release the materials SRS requested on February 10,  associated with inquiries, investigations, and communications between FDOT and Trinity regarding the design, manufacture, failure, purchase and testing of Trinity ET-Plus guardrail systems. SRS also asked for documents related to any motor vehicle accidents involving ET-Plus and consumer complaints about the safety of the system.

The Dallas, Texas-based manufacturer, a globally dominant producer and seller of guardrail systems has been under fire since 2012, when a competitor, SPIG Industries, of Bristol, Va. charged that sometime between 2002 and 2005, Trinity modified the design of its guardrail end terminals, causing it to perform poorly in crashes and injure and kill occupants in striking vehicles. These allegations have been the subject of numerous news stories abroad and in the U.S., including the Florida media.

Safety Research & Strategies Sues FHWA for Guardrail Documents

Safety Research & Strategies, an automobile and product safety research and consulting firm, has sued the Federal Highway Administration for the public release of documents regarding the safety of guardrail end terminals used on highways nationwide. The ET-Plus model end terminals, manufactured by the Dallas-based Trinity Industries, have been allegedly linked to deaths and severe injuries, leading state and federal highway officials to question their efficacy and safety.

The civil lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that the FHWA violated the Freedom of Information Act by improperly withholding records and failing to respond to two separate administrative appeals on the failure to release documents pertaining to the agency’s interactions with Trinity and with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. SRS originally sought the documents in November and January. 

Guardrail designs have evolved since the 1960s. Earlier designs used blunt ends that acted like a spear, penetrating the vehicle occupant compartment in a crash. The turned-down twist design of the 1970s buried the exposed ends, but acted like a ramp in a crash, causing vehicles to rollover. Today’s preferred design on some highways is the Energy-Absorbing End Terminal, which absorbs the crash energy, bends the end terminal away from the vehicle, and extrudes it through a slot into a flat metal ribbon. In the early 1990s, Texas A&M designed the ET-2000 in cooperation with the Texas Department of Transportation. Originally manufactured by Syro, Inc., the ET-2000, a variant of the Energy Absorbing End Terminal design, addressed some of the safety failures of earlier guardrail designs. The FHWA first approved the ET-2000 in the early 1990s, and its field performance was satisfactory.

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