WRAL Investigates

Guardrail blamed in deaths banned in most states, but not NC

Posted February 9, 2015 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated October 3, 2017 12:56 p.m. EDT

Editor’s Note: A recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision overturned a multi-million dollar jury verdict against Trinity. In its ruling, the court found government regulators were aware of changes made to the ET Plus guardrail system and that it still passed federal safety standards.

RALEIGH, N.C. — While most states have banned future installation of a common guardrail blamed for 40 deaths and hundreds of injuries in crashes nationwide, these guardrails can still be installed in North Carolina.

The debate over the safety of the ET Plus Guardrail has been growing recently, ever since new crash tests were released and a lawsuit was filed against the maker of the guardrail, Texas-based Trinity Industries Inc.

Josh Harman, who has spent 25 years in the guardrail installation business, filed a federal whistleblower case against Trinity. He accused the company of making changes to its guardrail heads, also known as endcaps, and not telling the federal government about the changes.

Last fall, a Texas jury found the company had defrauded the government by not telling the Federal Highway Administration about the design changes.

Trinity made the changes to the endcaps in 2005, shrinking them from 5 inches to 4 inches. When hit from the front, the ET Plus can potentially jam, causing the rail to pierce the car instead of peeling away.

“This is the death trap,” Harman said. “I call them killer heads is what I call them.”

Some North Carolina victims say the guardrail acted like a sword, piercing their cars and causing severe injuries. They want to know why the state Department of Transportation isn't doing anything about them.

Jay Traylor’s SUV veered off Interstate 40 in Hillsborough on Jan. 26, 2014, and into an ET Plus guardrail. It pierced his car, severing one leg. The other leg was so badly mangled that it had to be amputated. He now stands on prosthetics, which he compares to balancing on chopsticks.

“It’s very hard,” Traylor said. “It took a lot of work to where I can get to do a free stand without holding anything.”

Traylor said he believes he would still have his legs if he didn’t crash into that particular guardrail, a thought that still angers him “to a degree.”

“I mean, we're still at a year. I got the whole rest of my life to deal with it,” he said.

Harman knows Traylor’s story well. He has studied hundreds of guardrails crashes across the country, even personally visiting crash sites, including ones in North Carolina.

“There (are) multiple types of terminals out here, multiples, but the only ones I'm finding the injuries and the fatalities are the modified ET Plus,” he said. “These things are failing, and if something’s not done, it could be your family or mine.”

Harman has documented more than 40 deaths and more than 100 injuries involving cars hitting ET Plus endcaps. The state DOT estimates 10,000 of the federally-approved ET Plus endcaps are on North Carolina roads. Dozens of states have decided to stop installing any more ET Plus guardrails, pending further federal testing. North Carolina is not one of those states.

“The data we have do not lead us to make a decision, does not compel us to make a change in our practice,” said NCDOT senior traffic engineer Kevin Lacy.

According to Lacy, the number of fatal crashes involving guardrail ends went down after 2005, when the ET Plus guardrails were changed, compared with before, and so has the number of crashes with serious injuries, despite there being more cars on the road.

Lacy says some states that stopped using the guardrail have overreacted.

“I think in some cases they are,” he said. “If we were told to hold every product to the standard of no one has been injured or killed across the country, there would be nothing on the side of the roadway.”

Lacy says, since 2005, the NCDOT knows of six crashes, two of which were fatal, in which guardrails sliced through the cars. The most recent fatal crash was in Stokes County, and it turned out to be a different guardrail endcap. DOT officials can't say for certain how many of those guardrails were ET Plus, but they do know about Darius Williams.

Williams hadn't been drinking. He wasn't speeding. But somehow, last February, Williams' car veered off Interstate 85 near Archdale and into an ET Plus guardrail. The rail gouged his car and his hip.

“These injuries have been the worst I’ve ever had,” he said. “My waist is now smaller because of that.”

WRAL Investigates contacted Trinity, which maintains that the ET Plus guardrails are safe. The Federal Highway Administration ordered new crash tests on the ET Plus, which wrapped up in January. The highway administration announced the guard rails have passed four out of eight tests, but they are still waiting to release the remaining four test results.