A new study shows a popular guardrail model lining roadways across the country and one at the center of a possible billion-dollar whistleblower lawsuit is more likely to produce severe injury than it’s earlier model.
According to the study, the ET-Plus guardrail end terminal, manufactured by Trinity Industries, is 1.36 times more likely to produce a severe injury and 2.86 times more likely to produce death than an older model manufactured by Trinity, the ET-2000.
Researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham looked at almost a decade of crashes in Missouri and Ohio. It was funded by The Safety Institute and the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission and published Sept. 11 by the University of Alabama School of Engineering.
For the past two years, Scripps reporters have been investigating questions and issues surrounding the ET-Plus model manufactured by Trinity Industries.
The guardrails were installed throughout the country in all 50 states. Scripps reporters have been reporting on lawsuits filed by victims across the country. The lawsuits claim alterations the Dallas-based company made to their ET-Plus guardrails are responsible for four deaths and 10 injuries in several states, including Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia.
In this type of guardrail, the terminal head is supposed to take the impact and slow down the vehicle. The railing is supposed to channel through the head and pigtail out the side — away from the car. But, there has been accident after accident where the railing gets jammed up and often pierces the vehicle like a spear that cuts through the cars and sometimes people in its way.
On January 27, 2014, Jay Traylor was one of the victims.
“I've lost my legs in a wreck,” Traylor told a 911 dispatcher. “I've lost my legs in a wreck. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”
As the 36-year-old drove alone on a North Carolina highway, his Isuzu Trooper veered sharply and slammed head-on into a guardrail, which cut through the SUV’s floorboards and straight into his seat.
Bleeding heavily, he managed to dial 911.
“I swear, I'm gonna die,” he told the dispatcher. “I'm gonna die.”
“Just stay with me, OK,” the dispatcher told him. “We're trying to get help there as soon as we can.”
Traylor saw the blood pouring out of his wounds and was not convinced. “You're not going to make it, I'm so sorry,” he told the dispatcher.
Here’s the good news: Traylor was wrong. But the accident has changed his life forever. Both of his legs were amputated below the knee.
View Crashes with ET-Plus-related complaints in a larger map
The map above shows where lawsuits or Attorney General complaints have been filed across the U.S. Click on the location markers for more information about the accidents and complaints.
He’s filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the guardrail his SUV slammed into in HIllsborough, North Carolina, about an hour outside of Raleigh.
Lena Tucker, filed a lawsuit this week against Trinity, blaming the highway manufacturing giant, for the death of her husband after a September 2012 car crash.
About halfway through his 90-minute work commute into downtown Dallas, a drive he made for 20 years, Melton "Shain" Tucker fell asleep at the wheel on Highway 81. He crashed his silver 2012 Chevrolet Cruze into the beginning of a guardrail, which pierced the car's front and rammed into his head, killing him instantly. Tucker was 46.
The new study analyzed single-vehicle ran-off-road crashes that occurred in Ohio, between 2005-2013, and Missouri, between 2005-2014, in which contact with the guardrail end was identified as the most harmful event.
Along with the ET-Plus, the crash performance of three other designs was assessed against the ET-2000, an earlier model end terminal also manufactured by Trinity.
The three other designs assessed in the study were:
According to the study, the sample sizes of accidents involving the FLEAT, SKT and SRT designs were insufficient to compare their safety performance to the ET-2000. But, the sample size to compare the safety performance of the ET-Plus to the ET-2000 was sufficient.
In the study the researchers said more information is needed.
“The results and conclusions pertinent to one state are not necessarily pertinent to any other state,” the study states.
TSI, the nonprofit which provided funding for this study, is currently being represented by lawyers for Public Justice to unseal documents associated with the federal whistleblower lawsuit against Trinity Industries.
A federal whistleblower lawsuit was filed by former industry business owner, Josh Harman, on behalf of the American public. The case is unfolding in a federal court in Texas where the company’s headquarters is located.
Harman said the current Trinity guardrails, the ET-Plus model, are dangerous and deadly. He said the guardrails were never properly tested or properly approved by the government.
Trinity has said in statements the company stands behind its product and has called Harman’s allegations “false and misleading.”
The trial resulted in a mistrial earlier this summer. According to U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap, there were “serious concerns” regarding witness truthfulness associated with the defendant, highway manufacturing giant Trinity Industries.
The case is expected to go back to court later this year. A pre-trial court date of October 7 has been scheduled.
According to Harman, the size of the feeder chute was shrunken by an inch.
Rather than sweep a vehicle off to the side, as the guardrail head is designed to do, the modified ET-Plus has caused guardrails to pull up, ramming through the front of vehicles and into cabins according to lawyers and plaintiffs. The original design, called the ET-2000, did not do that.
“I believe these changes were made for the purpose so they could sell more heads,” Harman said.
According to ABC News, internal company emails obtained by the news organization show Trinity discussed saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by shrinking the guardrail head.
In a June letter, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, FHWA, reiterated that the ET-Plus guardrail model is eligible for federal reimbursement. The letter was sent after the transportation agency received inquiries from State DOT’s and FHWA Division Offices regarding the federal-aid eligibility of the the guardrail manufactured by Trinity.
Safety Research and Strategies examines public safety issues and pushes for government transparency related to product approval and testing. The research firm has been involved with several high profile car manufacturing issues including the recent Toyota unintended acceleration investigation, where Kane testified before Congress.
The group filed a lawsuit against the federal government for access to information about the government’s approval of changes made to the guardrail.
In an emailed statement, the FHWA, said:
“The Trinity ET-Plus guardrail was crash tested in 2005 by an independent, certified testing facility and met the relevant safety standards. The FHWA has never received a complaint from any state regarding the guardrail’s performance. The only complaint has come from a competitor who questioned the guardrail’s testing, but the manufacturer (Trinity) provided FHWA with documentation that the guardrail was crash tested to meet the standards.”
Earlier this year, the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) removed the end terminal model, the ET-Plus, from it’s list of approved products.
“A change made to the size of the guard channels on the ET-Plus was not reported to NDOT, as required by our policy,” Meg Ragonese, the public information officer for NDOT wrote in an email.
In Nevada and Florida, the transportation department’s require companies to tell transportation officials about any changes made to products approved for use on highways.
In Florida, the ET-Plus has been recertified for use every two years since 2005 after Trinity responded each time in writing stating there were no major design changes to the device.
Unlike in Nevada, the state of Florida has not taken any action.
Last November, Florida State Representative Irv Slosberg said he would call for an investigation into the matter. So far, no movement in that direction has been made.
Last March, a committee with a national traffic safety non-profit, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, approved an in-service review of guardrail terminals.
It’s being lead by the Transportation Research Board’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program.
It hopes to determine whether or not guardrail end terminals currently on our roadways, which have performed acceptably in crash tests, are actually performing the way they are designed to perform in real-world accidents.
The review was initiated after the committee surveyed state transportation officials across the country, Tony Dorsey, AASHTO's Manager of Media Relations said. The survey asked state officials if they had been having problems with any guardrail end terminals.
Lynn Walsh is a data content producer and investigative reporter on the Scripps National Desk. She may be followed on Twitter through the handle @LWalsh.
WPTV Investigative Reporter Shannon Cake, WPTV Photographer Jim Sitton, Naples Daily News Reporter Jacob Carpenter, KGTV, 10-News Reporter JW August, KGTV, 10-News Reporter Mitch Blacher, KGTV, 10-News Executive Producer Ellen McGregor, KNXV Producer Maria Tomasch and KNXV Reporter Dave Biscobing contributed to this investigation.