Criminal Probe Widens Into Texas Guardrail-Maker

April 27, 2015 — A report by the New York Times has provided more information about the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into highway guardrails that can potentially jam up in head-on crashes and act like deadly spears that impale cars and their occupants.

The Justice Department has issued at least one grand jury subpoena for documents and other records related to a federal whistleblower lawsuit against Trinity Industries. In October 2014, a jury in Texas ordered Trinity to pay $175 million for defrauding the government by failing to disclose design changes to the ET-Plus guardrail end-terminal.

Investigators have interviewed at least five potential witnesses, including one former official with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Last month, the FHWA announced that the modified ET-Plus had passed a series of eight crash tests. In the final test, the guardrail buckled behind the end-terminal, severely damaged the door of the vehicle, and likely would have injured the driver.

Prosecutors with the FBI and Transportation Department have been investigating the relationship between the FHWA and Trinity Industries. They are also specifically inquiring about one official, Nicholas Artimovich, a senior engineer who raised concerns about the guardrail in 2012.

Artimovich wrote, “There does seem to be a valid question over the field performance,” and it was “hard to ignore the fatal results.” No action was taken by the FHWA to investigate his concerns.

The ET-Plus is a “shock-absorbing” guardrail end-terminal. When a car impacts the ET-Plus, it slides along a guide-channel and feeds the guardrail through an extruder head. The extruder head flattens the guardrail into a ribbon and deflects it away from the oncoming car.

In 2005, Trinity reduced the width of the guide-channel from 5-inches to 4-inches. This change saved money on materials, but also may have made the ET-Plus more likely to jam up. When this occurs, the guardrail can buckle and act like a deadly spear that impales oncoming vehicles.

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