July 25, 2016 — The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published the results of an investigation that began last year in response to concerns about highway guardrails impaling cars like spears rather than deflecting away in head-on collisions.
The guardrails, known as ET-Plus, are made by Trinity Industries of Dallas. It has been linked to at least five deaths and dozens of injuries in horrific crashes, spawning several lawsuits.
Crash tests on the guardrails in 2005 and 2010 were conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute, a part of Texas A&M that also owns the patent to the ET-Plus and earned millions of dollars in royalties by licensing it to Trinity, according to the New York Times.
Out of 9 laboratories authorized to test roadside safety devices for the Federal Highway Agency (FHWA), investigators found that 6 labs tested products developed by their own employees.
The report recommends an independent third-party verification to check crash-test results and make a pass/fail determination.
In October 2014, a Texas jury found Trinity liable for $663 million for changing the ET-Plus without telling the FHWA. The jury did not rule on the safety of the modified ET-Plus. Whistleblowers say Trinity downsized the ET-Plus to save money on materials, which made the guardrail more likely to jam up and impale oncoming cars like a spear.
The day after the verdict, the FHWA gave Trinity 10 days to come up with a plan for crash-testing the modified guardrail. The agency ordered Trinity to pick a facility without a financial interest in the product.
They chose Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, Texas. In the proposal, Trinity acknowledged working with Southwest in the past, but said patents on those products had expired and Trinity was no longer paying royalties to the facility.
In crash-tests conducted last year, only Southwest Research staff were allowed to record the tests with cameras or video. The facility only conducted head-on crashes — not low-angle tests (approx. 4.5º) that have been blamed on the impalements.
In March 2015, Southwest Research announced that the Trinity ET-Plus had passed the tests, including a final test in which the device jammed up and severely dented the driver-side door of the test car.
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