Pickup Goes Airborne After Virginia Tests Trinity Guardrail System

By Patrick G. Lee and Valerie Reitman | October 6, 2015

A pickup went airborne while a small car came to an upright stop in two crash tests of a guardrail safety device linked in lawsuits to at least nine deaths.

The tests Friday at the Karco Engineering LLC in the desert northeast of Los Angeles were the last of a series of six by Virginia’s transportation department to help decide whether to replace thousands of Trinity Industries Inc. guardrail systems lining its roadways.guardrail

Trinity’s ET-Plus guardrail end terminal is designed to give way when struck, cushioning the impact. A revised version of the ET-Plus instead locks up under certain conditions, spearing vehicles, according to more than 20 lawsuits.

Virginia accuses Trinity in a lawsuit of failing to disclose the design changes that cause the alleged malfunction. It wants the company to pay for replacing its unapproved, modified guardrail terminals in state, plus additional damages, according to the lawsuit.

Trinity has said the modifications don’t affect the device’s safety. Jeff Eller, a Trinity spokesman, said Friday’s tests were “designed to fail” to support the state’s lawsuit.

“The outcomes are not relevant because the tests were to no known standard,” Eller said in an e-mail. “If Virginia wants to create new standards, they must test all terminals to their new standards.”

The tests are to ensure the safety of Virginia’s highways and are unrelated to the lawsuit, said Marshall Herman, a spokeswoman for the state’s transportation department.

About 200,000 of the guardrail units line roadways across the country, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The FHWA concluded in September that guardrail systems made by Trinity and another manufacturer, Road Systems Inc., had “safety performance limitations” in some real-world crash scenarios. The agency recommended the adoption of more stringent safety criteria for highway devices to be installed in the future, while maintaining that guardrail systems, including Trinity’s modified ET-Plus, meet current safety standards.

In March, the FHWA announced that the ET-Plus had passed a series of eight crash tests conducted in accordance with those standards.

It was unclear during Friday’s tests whether the guardrail penetrated or deformed the occupant compartment of either vehicle. Reporters were allowed to watch the tests from several dozen yards away.

In both tests, a vehicle was accelerated into the end of the guardrail at a slight angle. The pickup truck appeared to flip over and landed upright. The car remained upright throughout the test, suffering damage to the hood.

In June, a federal judge issued a $663 million judgment against Trinity after a jury found the company liable for fraud. According to the whistleblower in the case – competing guardrail-maker Joshua Harman – Trinity failed to tell federal safety regulators about changes to the ET-Plus about a decade ago. Trinity is appealing the verdict.

The Virginia lawsuit was filed by Harman as a whistleblower. The state decided to join the case in December.

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