Failed Guardrail Tests Not Reported to Federal AuthoritiesOct 17, 2014
During a federal whistleblower trial, Trinity Industries, a maker of roadway guardrails, tried to explain why it had not disclosed five failed crash tests to authorities.
The case was brought under the False Claims Act by Joshua Harman, a competitor who discovered that Trinity had changed the design of its ET-Plus rail head in 2005 without notifying the Federal Highway Administration, The New York Times reports. A number of states have raised safety concerns about the redesigned guardrail. Missouri, Massachusetts and Nevada have banned the use of the Trinity guardrail, ABC News reports, and Virginia has told Trinity it does not believe the company conducted adequate testing of the ET-Plus. Trinity has said that the failure to disclose the changes was accidental, and that it does not believe the guardrail poses a safety hazard. The highway agency said the crash tests it reviewed in 2012 led it to determine the guardrails were eligible for federal reimbursement.
Guardrails work by collapsing when struck head-on, absorbing the impact of the vehicle to help prevent injuries. The head rail, a flat piece of steel at the front of the guardrail, is supposed to slide along the rail itself, pushing the metal safely out of the way. In 2005, Trinity narrowed the channel behind the rail head, which critics say can cause it to jam and push the rail itself into the vehicle — potentially injuring the vehicle’s occupants, the Times reports.
Trinity has defended its actions in not reporting the tests by saying that the tests were only an experiment to see whether ET-Plus guardrails with a more “flared” design would work. The company said the flared guardrail was “never manufactured, sold or installed” on roadways, according to the Times.
In a statement, Trinity said the redesigned guardrail was “purely a research and development project.” The plaintiffs, however, assert that the five failed tests used the same ET-Plus rail head as those in use across the country and that Trinity deliberately chose to hide the results from regulators, according to the Times. Roger Bligh, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute, which conducted the crash tests for Trinity, said even after he met with the government’s lead engineer on the ET-Plus inquiry he never mentioned there had been another set of tests involving the same guardrail head.
An earlier trial ended in a mistrial in a dispute over whether Trinity had tried to intimidate a safety expert, according to the Times.