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:

Courtesy of KSAT.

Trinity President Greg Mitchell saw it. According to the pool reporter who bore witness for her fourth-estate buds: 

“Something seemed very dramatic at impact- different than the same 'off-set small car' test at the 27 ¾ inch test in early January. The damage and impact was entire front end- even looking centered for worst damage. I cannot confirm that nothing penetrated the cab.  The Trinity president and PR rep immediately went to one another with no smiles and fast conversation.”

Indeed. This is more or less how some versions of the ET-Plus end terminal – now under fire after a federal jury concluded that Dallas, Texas-based Trinity Industries had defrauded the government by failing to disclose a significant design change that saved the company $50,000 – is alleged to have performed in the field, with catastrophic consequences to actual humans.

It was the eighth and final test at the Southwest Research Institute’s facility in San Antonio, Texas. The skies were blue and sunny, giving all the observers – including the FHWA, representatives of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) – and Trinity a clear view of the small-car test using a 31-inch guardrail, with an impact off-set to the passenger side.  

The pool reporter, from her position, about 200 yards from the impact, said:

“The black & white car Geo Metro traveled down the track at approximately 62 mph and hit the ET-Plus guardrail head on but off-set to passenger side of the car.  The car hit the head and crashed through approx. 4 posts while spinning half a turn and into traffic.  Substantial damage occurred to front of this car, with not a lot of 'extrusion/ribboning' of the guardrail.”  

According to the FHWA response to Trinity’s test plan, Trinity was concerned about who would be allowed to watch the tests: “The test plan only references FHWA observers. FHWA intends to bring independent experts, members of AASHTO, and State DOT representatives along with FHWA personnel. FHW A will provide Trinity, in advance, with a list of FHWA personnel and those we wish to invite to attend the crash tests. Trinity agrees, is primarily concerned with impartiality, and will inform FHWA if they have concerns with any of the individuals on FHWA's list.” (Trinity has no particular interest in the outcome, so it makes sense to give the company the final say.) 

Nonetheless, the eleven individuals present on Tuesday were not the only eyes on this testing. After Trinity lost the federal whistleblower lawsuit that competitor Joshua Harman brought on behalf of the government, the FHWA was forced to act. In 2012, the agency allowed Trinity to submit seven-year-old test results which purported to show that the ET-Plus energy-absorbing end terminals manufactured after 2005 performed adequately in crash tests. In the wake of the October finding of fraud and a trebled $175 million damages award, the FHWA ordered a fresh round of tests, but not the off-set tests that mirror how the guardrail was faring in the field. 

Documents obtained from the FHWA by Safety Research & Strategies via a FOIA lawsuit show that in the run-up to the tests, FHWA officials were crafting and re-drafting – with guidance from Chief Counsel Thomas Echikson and many hands within the Office of Safety Technologies – responses to pointed questions from the press and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). 

Although the 267 pages are full of R & R (repetition and redactions), amid the effort to churn out a FAQ, a press release related to the testing plan, and a letter accepting Trinity’s  testing plan, are internal communications regarding a meeting with Blumenthal’s staff. The senator has publicly expressed reservations about the test protocol, which experts say is out of date, and the lack of a crash test that mimics field performance.

According to documents released by the agency, ABC producer Cindy Galli also posed a series of questions to the FHWA – among them, about Trinity’s financial ties to the SWRI, and whether the results of these tests would conclude the matter for the federal government. The agency responded:

"We're reviewing data to determine whether the ET-Plus and other comparable end treatments have vulnerabilities under conditions not covered by NCH RP 350 testing and are considering whether additional analyses, including evaluations of the end treatments' performance on roads, are warranted.•

Surely, Trinity President Greg Mitchell would agree. In a November 6 letter, he presented his bonafides to the FHWA:

“The safety of the American driving public is very important to Trinity, and we take very seriously the safety of the products that we manufacture for installation on the nation's roadways. We believe that this process will confirm going forward that our products meet the NCHRP Report 350 standards.” 

As the Safety Record Blog knows from reading so many letters of this variety, everybody and their Grandmas takes safety seriously. How one’s somber mien translates into demonstrable action – ah, here is where there is much disagreement. Scientific studies show that a sizeable percentage of people who say that they take safety seriously believe that this utterance alone suffices. 

Now that there is videotaped evidence that the process did not provide Trinity or the FHWA with the unequivocal confirmation that the ET-Plus is a NCHRP standard-bearer, what are either going to do about it?