Trinity Industries Inc. and the federal government plan to crash-test the company’s allegedly defective guardrail components by the end of January, the Federal Highway Administration said today.
Trinity, one of the country’s biggest makers of guardrail systems, has come under scrutiny by the federal government and state departments of transportation for making undisclosed changes in 2005 to one of its products, called the ET-Plus. At least 37 states have stopped installing them, and Virginia has said it will start removing them.
“If the ET-Plus does not meet the criteria, the device will be immediately ineligible for federal reimbursement,” Gregory Nadeau, the FHWA’s acting administrator, said today on a conference call. The U.S. government pays states back for some of their spending on FHWA-certified highway products.
Trinity’s shock-absorbing device, which mounts onto the ends of guardrails, is meant to cushion the impact of a crashing car. Crash victims and their families allege in lawsuits that the Dallas-based company’s secretly changed version locks up on impact, potentially spearing oncoming cars and occupants.
About 200,000 ET-Plus units are installed on highways across the country, Nadeau said on the call.
Trinity is pleased that the federal agency approved its test plan, the company said in an e-mailed statement. It expects the process to confirm that its product is crashworthy, it said.
Trinity changed the ET-Plus without telling the FHWA, cheating the government of $175 million since 2006, a Texas jury found Oct. 20 in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed against the company by a competitor.
The jury didn’t rule on the safety of the modified Trinity product, which the company stands by. Trinity has said it plans to appeal the verdict.
The day after the verdict, the FHWA gave Trinity 10 days to come up with a plan for crash-testing the modified version.
It also required that the facility hired to conduct the tests have no financial interest in the product, unlike some researchers that helped test the product in 2005 and earned millions in royalties for the ET-Plus.
Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, Texas, will conduct the tests, according to Trinity’s plan.
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