Controversial highway guardrails meet federal crash standards, agency says

By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor | 3/16/2015

A highway guardrail that was the subject of a false-claims lawsuit and was at least temporarily discontinued in 40 states has been found to meet federal crash standards after all, the Federal Highway Administration announced Friday, March 13.

FHWA released the findings of crash tests and data analysis, which concluded that even though the design of the ET-Plus guardrail end terminal made by Texas-based Trinity Industries was changed by the company after federal contracts were signed, the newer design did not pose an increased safety risk.

A whistleblower lawsuit brought by plaintiff Joshua Harmon claimed that the changed design – which reduced the size of the ET-Plus end terminal by 4 inches – could shear a vehicle upon impact and cause severe injuries or deaths of vehicle occupants.

In its defense, Trinity Industries claimed it had conducted proper crash tests to make sure the ET-Plus met federal standards. The company filed two unsuccessful defamation lawsuits against Harmon.

In October 2014, a U.S. District Court jury in Texas sided with the plaintiff and ordered Trinity Industries to pay $525 million in damages.

The fallout led to 40 states canceling orders for the ET-Plus, and the manufacturer suspended production pending a full Federal Highway Administration analysis.

FHWA began independent crash tests of the ET-Plus in December 2014, and called upon state departments of transportation to submit crash data involving the guardrails.

“The testing of the ET-Plus was the first step in FHWA’s comprehensive plan to ensure the safety of roadside safety hardware and the ET-Plus,” the agency stated in a press release. “The results of the December 2014-January 2015 crash testing at Southwest Research Institute in Texas, along with the historical test data, show that the ET-Plus meets all applicable test criteria.”

There are currently 200,000 ET-Plus guardrail end terminals in use on federal and state highways. With eight tests completed, the feds say they may still conduct more analysis.

“FHWA, together with AASHTO (American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials), will objectively and thoroughly assess all of this information to reach a data-driven conclusion about the real-world performance of the ET-Plus and whether additional testing is needed.”

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