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.
End terminals are designed to lessen the severity of a crash by allowing the striking vehicle to ride down the crash forces safely. End terminals should reduce the speed without deflecting the vehicle back onto the roadway. Guardrail end designs have evolved from blunt-end terminals in the 1960s to twist turn-down designs that served as a ramp, causing vehicle rollovers used in the late 20th Century. Today, the W-Beam guardrail with an energy absorbing end and is the most commonly used. The W-Beam end terminal deforms away from the striking vehicle, either by flattening, cutting or kinking the rail, lessening the chances for intrusion or rollovers.
There have been several hundred thousand ET-Plus end terminals installed on federal and state highways around the country. At least 30 states have now banned new installation of these type of guardrail systems but Trinity has not been forced to recall the existing guardrails or replace the heads. Federal regulators are still not recognizing the defective nature of these guardrails.
There are other guardrail defects that can injure or kill loved ones in a wreck. Guardrails are required to be a certain height to insure that cars do not ride over the guardrails during a wreck, essentially acting as a ramp and causing rollovers.
If you or a loved one has been injured or killed in an automobile accident involving guardrails, consult with an attorney immediately.