On October 24, Texas-based Trinity Industries, Inc. announced it will halt shipments of its ET-Plus highway guardrail system after losing a massive lawsuit for misleading regulators. A jury in federal district court in Marshall, Texas awarded a plaintiff a $175 million settlement after a whistle-blower told a judge the company changed the design of caps that affix onto the ends of the guardrails, but did not inform regulators of this development until several years later. A judge could triple the jury’s award. The company is implementing further testing on the system.
This court action comes on the tail-end of nationwide reports of deaths and lost limbs suffered when guardrails pierced vehicles that struck them. Across the country federal officials are backing a study to test whether guardrails are as safe as manufacturer-implemented tests indicate. An official of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA,) Nicholas Artimovich, has informed ABC News of the countrywide testing.
“We are supporting a national cooperative highway research program to look into the performance of guard rail terminals,” he said.
He also revealed the research will be conducted by a cooperative team of public and private highway engineers and experts. The testing is designed to determine whether the guardrail heads (end terminals) can, in practice, withstand the impact of a head-on crash of a vehicle travelling at up to 62 miles per hour “in the real world” as they are supposedly designed to. A recent study indicated a re-designed version of a widely used guardrail terminus “placed motorists at a higher level of risk of both serious injury and fatality” than the older version.
The study is being conducted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is sponsored by the state of Missouri and the non-profit agency, the Safety Institute. It will base its findings on data gleaned from examination of crippling and fatal crashes in Missouri and Ohio,
“This is an important first step in understanding the actual field performance of this product,” said Safety Institute President of the Board of Directors Sean Kane.
The Safety Institute also consults with any lawyers who file lawsuits against guardrail manufacturers.
“We are seeing on-road failures that shouldn’t be happening,” said Kane. “I have real concern about leaving them on the highways.”
The final report from the University of Alabama has not yet been delivered, and the spokesman said, “We are unable to state what our course of action, if any, will be” upon receipt of the report.
Trinity is already facing a series of lawsuits concerning crashes in which motorists were killed or crippled. A Trinity spokesperson said he had no comment other than to reveal the company has not seen the study.
The Federal Highway Commission, however, did reveal the ET-Plus did take and pass safety crash tests and met federal standards. Officials also revealed that even the best and most extensively tested guardrails cannot guarantee motorist safety in crashes.
Injured motorists contend that a slight modification to the guardrails that reduced one piece of metal from five inches to four inches made the rails dangerous. Trinity denies this change had any impact on the rails’ performance, crediting the ET-Plus with saving hundreds of lives since its 1999 introduction.
Significantly, the inventor of the ET-Plus, Dean Sicking, told ABC News that when Trinity implemented the modification in 2005 it did not inform him.
“I was not involved in that change, and never really understood why they did it,” he said.
The company’s internal memos indicate that cutting an inch off the metal would save $2 per end terminal. One memo read, “That’s $50,000 a year, and $250,000 in five years by using the 4” channel.” Still, Trinity denies any changes were made to increase profits.
The Texas Department of Transportation released the following statement regarding the system: “In response to Trinity Highway Products, LLC, suspending shipment of the ET-Plus system, TxDOT is immediately suspending the specifications of these systems as an alternative in contracts and is discontinuing the use of these systems for new installations until further notice. Safety remains our top priority. As the FHWA continues seeking more information on the ET-Plus, TxDOT will begin collecting data on future vehicle collisions with any guardrail terminal end treatments. This information will be shared with the FHWA.”
For further information please call (512) 463-8700 or visit MediaRelations@ txdot.gov.
Story by. Kelly Bell/ETR