Trinity Guardrail Review Faulted by Product Safety Institute

By Patrick G. Lee | March 23, 2015

A U.S. highway agency’s favorable analysis of Trinity Industries Inc.’s guardrail system was criticized by a nonprofit safety group, which said crash-test data show that motorists remain at risk.

The Federal Highway Administration announced March 13 that Trinity’s ET-Plus shock-absorbing system had passed all eight government-mandated tests. Sean Kane, president of The Safety Institute in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, said on Thursday that the agency got it wrong.

The test “is clearly a fail,” Kane, who was one of the earliest critics of the ET-Plus, wrote in his letter to acting FHWA Administrator Gregory Nadeau. The agency was putting “the safety of the public” at risk, he added.

The FHWA required Trinity to conduct the tests after a U.S. jury in Marshall, Texas, found the company had defrauded the U.S. by failing to report design changes made around 2005. Other lawsuits have linked the allegedly defective design to at least eight deaths.

Many states have suspended installations of the system.

Kane focused on the final crash test, in which a 1998 Geo Metro was driven into the end of an ET-Plus guardrail system. The car spun around and collided with a bent piece of guardrail, which deformed the driver-side door. The intrusion appeared to knock the steering wheel out of place and hit the test dummy’s upper leg, according to video released by the FHWA.

Lower Leg

The agency’s analysis found the intrusion was “unlikely” to have caused serious injury to the lower leg. Trinity said the tests proved the ET-Plus is a “robust” system.

Kane said the eighth test proved just the opposite. He said the agency failed to investigate the potential for serious injury to the left arm and torso, which also interacted with the intruding door.

“This is the real-world failure scenario that has raised – – and will continue to raise — controversy about the safety and efficacy of this device,” he wrote.

The FHWA didn’t account for the maximum intrusion that occurred during the crash, which was enough to deform the steering wheel, he said. Instead, the agency only looked at the smaller post-crash deformation, which was 6.75 inches at most, Kane said.

“He’s just wrong,” Jeff Eller, a Trinity spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. “The ET-Plus passed the test.”

Jane Mellow, a spokeswoman for the FHWA, didn’t have an immediate comment on the letter. In response to other criticism, the FHWA has noted that an independent expert and another government safety agency came to the same conclusion as it did. The agency’s review of the ET-Plus’s performance is continuing.

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