It is one of the most visible forms of safety on freeways and highways: the guardrail. However, recent events have caused many to call into question whether the newest model is actually safe. Also known as traffic or crash barriers, the guardrail was created to serve a dual purpose. Not only was it designed to keep vehicles from leaving the road, but they were also created to keep the vehicle from bouncing back into traffic; ideally, a vehicle that crashed into a guardrail would safely ride along it until momentum stopped.
That, however, is not what has been happening. Starting in 2012, the dominant producer / seller of guardrail systems, Trinity, has been facing a multitude of accusations that their newest design has been failing in crashes and actually causing severe injuries to occupants of vehicles who strike the guardrails. Per documents that have recently been released, Trinity, along with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), have been working to keep such allegations quiet, rather than taking them seriously and investigating them properly.
The Story of Cynthia Martin & Richard Blaine Markland
The seriousness of this problem can easily be seen in the story of Cynthia Martin and Richard Blaine Markland who were involved in a tragic accident on June 8. The two were driving along I-93 in New Hampshire when their Subaru sedan struck a guardrail; however, instead of performing as it should, the guardrail did not yield and peel away from the car. Instead, it formed a weapon that pierced the passenger compartment and struck both occupants. Both victims sustained severe injuries, and both have had multiple surgeries. In fact, two months after the accident, Markland was still undergoing surgeries (he has received approximately 20 so far); most of the medical attention is focused on replacing the flesh that the guardrail sheared off.
History of Guardrail Design
Guardrails used today are not the same ones that have been on the road for decades. In fact, they have seen significant changes throughout the years, which have been marketed as upgrades. In the 1960s, guardrails were designed with a blunt end that acted like a weapon during actual crashes by penetrating the vehicle. This was changed in the 1970s by creating the turned-down twist design that hid the exposed ends of the barrier; however, this too was dangerous as it created a ramp that caused cars to either vault or rollover.
Today, most guardrails use a design known as the Energy-Absorbing End Terminal. This was designed to engage the vehicle by driving it along the guide rail while the kinetic energy dissipates as the steel bends or tears. The guardrail thus absorbs the crash energy, bends away from the vehicle during the collision, and folds into a flat metal ribbon that does not puncture the passenger compartment or serve as a ramp.
Background of Trinity's Products
In the 1990s, Trinity introduced the ET-2000 guardrail system, which was an Energy-Absorbing End Terminal. This helped to solve some of the earlier issues created by their former systems, which are explained above. The FHWA approved it in the early '90s and showed reports that its field performance meant standards.
Then, in 1999, the next system was rolled out when Trinity introduced their ET-Plus. Six years later, Trinity altered the design to allegedly save materials and make it cheaper to produce. Ultimately, this change made the feeder chute shorter; critics allege that this alteration makes it so that the rail does not extrude and bend away from the vehicle but rather jam into the shorter chute, fold in half, and form a dangerous spear.
Trinity's Whistleblower Lawsuit
Trinity became involved in a serious whistleblower lawsuit when Josh Harmon, a former industry business owner, filed suit claiming that the ET-Plus model was deadly. Per the lawsuit, the guardrails never received any proper testing from the government nor were they properly approved. These allegations have since been called "false and misleading" by Trinity who released statements claiming they stand behind their product.
On July 18, the suit ended in a mistrial when the U.S. District Judge stated that both sides had prejudiced the proceedings. Both Trinity and Harmon were called out for their conduct—especially in regards to witness testimony from the professor who designed the ET-2000. Trinity was accused of potentially intimidating the witness while Harmon was accused of hiding his participation in the trial until the very last minute. Currently, it is believed that the case will be re-tried in November. If successful, plaintiffs could recover as much as $1B.