Highway Guardrail Design Change Saved $2—At What Cost To Safety?

October 13, 2014
Highway rest stop - AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Highway rest stop - AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Is a design change to the ends of guardrails along many of our nation's roadways—a design change that saved two dollars for each installation—to blame for at least five fatalities and 14 injuries?

That's part of what lawsuits are now alleging, in light of what happened in several accidents in which vehicles hit the ends of guardrails.

As some state officials see it, the new ET-Plus design at the center of the allegations, is not preventing fatalities in the way that the preceding design, the ET-2000, had. And based on a series of accidents that has them concerned, the newer design can become jammed and break to form a point in a way that can potentially pierce vehicle sheetmetal and occupants.

READ: Ford Reconsidering A Compact Pickup, Ranger Redux For U.S.

Some state officials have become so concerned that they've banned further installation of the new ET-Plus design. Currently Missouri, Nevada, and Massachusetts aren't installing them at all.

Today, tens of thousands of these controversial guardrail heads are now installed in nearly every U.S. state.

Audi R8 skewered on guardrail via WreckedExotics

Audi R8 skewered on guardrail via WreckedExotics

The supplier of the guardrail at question, Trinity Industries, made the design change, which saved about two dollars per guardrail head (an end of a stretch of railing) in 2005, and had submitted results of crash tests on that new design that same year.

However, some are now suggesting that this qualified as a design change and needed to go through a more rigorous federal approval process—something the design never got. The change had been discovered years later, as part of a patent case not involving the accidents.

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A 2009 study from the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), funded by the Transportation Construction Coalition, found that more than half of all traffic deaths on American roadways can be attributed to poor road conditions. The study argued for, among other things, installing and upgrading guardrails, as part of a measured approach to making roadways safer.

Sadly, that now sounds a little misguided in some cases—especially if the 'old'-design guardrails had actually been safer.

All that concern from various state officials hasn't yet been publicly supported by federal regulators. While the Federal Highway Administration attests that these newer guardrails do meet crash-test requirements, internal documents obtained by the New York Times raise plenty of questions about, as in the GM ignition related recalls, whether the feds could have acted earlier.

For instance, an agency engineer had written in an e-mail that it was hard to ignore the fatal results of the new design, and a letter requesting additional testing was drafted but not sent.

All of these questions are slated to be at center of a federal lawsuit to start today in Marshall, Texas.


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