Earlier this week, Trinity Industries Inc. was ordered to pay $663 million in damages for failing to tell the government about design changes to highway guardrails that critics say made the systems more dangerous. This was after a jury in Marshall, Texas, decided last October that Trinity defrauded the government by failing to tell regulators about changes to its ET-Plus guardrails, which are designed to fold up when hit by a car, reducing the chance of death or injury to car occupants. Instead of folding up, critics claim that Trinity’s modified ET-Plus end terminal—which is a steel mechanism mounted onto the end of a guardrail to absorb the impact of a crash—was impaling cars instead of slowing them down safely.
Between 2002 and 2005, Trinity changed the design of its ET-Plus guardrail system without notifying federal and state safety regulators as required by law. Trinity changed the rectangular piece at the “head” of the guardrail, called an end terminal. Trinity reduced the dimensions of a metal part called a “feeder chute” that helps the end terminal cushion the impact from a crash so the guardrail bends away from the colliding vehicle. As a result, the guardrail can malfunction and jam upon impact, causing it to slice into vehicles.
The likelihood of an increased risk of injury or death because of the defective guardrail design has been confirmed by University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Engineering. In September, it released a study performed that examined eight years of severe injury and death data for crashes that occurred in Missouri and Ohio. The UAB study found that the ET-Plus design was 1.36 times more likely to produce a severe injury and 2.86 times more likely to produce a fatality than the ET-2000 design, also manufactured by Trinity.