freeteo/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — After analyzing dozens of real-world car crashes, a federal task force said Friday that a controversial guardrail system blamed by victims for gruesome injuries and deaths is not uniquely dangerous and could stay on American highways.
The finding comes as the maker of the guardrail system, Trinity Industries, faces a federal investigation into its dealings with state and federal safety officials and is fighting a state Department of Transportation over new crash tests for the embattled guardrail system.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) had created a task force to investigate crashes in which vehicles hit guardrail end terminals after it was revealed in 2012 that one of the guardrail makers, Trinity, had modified one of its end terminal models, the ET-Plus, years before and failed to notify state or federal officials as required. One of the modifications, making a five-inch wide piece of metal four inches, was estimated by an employee to save the company $50,000 per year.
In the years since, the modified end terminals were blamed by accident victims and critics for gruesome injuries and deaths after critics alleged that when hit a certain way, the tweaked guardrail would “lock up” and spear straight through the vehicle, rather than absorbing the impact as it was designed.
The modified end terminals, which were the subject of an ABC News 20/20 investigation last September, were already installed next to some highways across the country by the time a Texas court found Trinity had committed fraud and ordered it to pay more than $600 million in damages and penalties.
Late last year and early this year the FHWA conducted additional crash tests with the modified guardrail and said they passed, despite controversy of over one test that critics called a “clear” failure.
On Friday, the FHWA/AASHTO task force said that while all the guardrail end terminal models it analyzed, including those from other guardrail makers, from real-world crashes had “performance limitations,” the ET-Plus was not singled out and the task force said further testing was unnecessary.
“They did find some performance limitations, but the performance limitations that they found were similar for all devices,” FHWA Executive Director Jeff Paniati told reporters.
In part, the limitations dealt with the installation and maintenance of the guardrails, as well as issues with all of the guardrail types when it came to vehicles hitting the end terminals at various directions and angles – impacts different than those for which the guardrails are crash tested. The task force made eight recommendations, including moving on to the “next generation of guardrail terminals” and conducting “in-service performance evaluations” of existing terminals, but did not recommend removing any guardrails from the roads. The task force said it started by looking at more than 1,000 crashes, but determined 161 of those were worthy of performance analysis — 15 “key” instances of which “highlighted performance limitations.”