VDOT planning to replace guardrails

Critics say guardrail rail ends become spears that can impale vehicles

RICHMOND (AP) — Virginia transportation officials plan to remove installations of a common highway-guardrail system amid safety concerns.

The Virginia Department of Transportation also plans to seek reimbursement for the removal cost from the system’s manufacturer, Dallas-based Trinity Industry, VDOT spokeswoman Marshall Herman told The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/1tBRzf9).

Trinity stopped shipments of its ET-Plus guardrails last week after a Texas jury ordered it to pay at least $175 million for misleading regulators. A whistleblower says the company changed the guardrails’ design but didn’t inform regulators for several years.

Herman told the Northern Virginia Daily on Tuesday that the original ET-Plus guardrails were introduced in 2000 and complied with VDOT standards. However, in 2005, Trinity introduced a modified version of the system, which reduced the channels of the guardrail from 5 inches to 4 inches.

“We were not informed of the changes in the guardrails until 2013,” Herman said. “When the channels get changed, that affects how well the guardrail curls away from the car when it hits.”

Critics say that when vehicles strike the guardrail ends, the guardrails don’t crumple as they should, but instead become spears that impale cars and their occupants.

According to Herman, two incidents of this kind were reported, with no fatalities.

“We have yet to determine if the modified guardrail was involved with these accidents,” Herman told the Northern Virginia Daily.

Virginia banned the use of Trinity’s products after the company missed a deadline last Friday to submit plans for additional crash testing. Trinity’s request for an extension was denied, the New York Times story said.

“We asked them to comply with the deadline, and they didn’t make it,” Herman told the Northern Virginia Daily. “We also wanted a VDOT representative there to watch the crash testing and they did not comply with that either.”

Plans for the guardrail removal are currently being formulated within VDOT. The cost, as well as how many of Virginia’s 11,000 guardrail ends are the modified ET-Plus models is still undetermined, Herman told the Daily.

“Our guardrails are put up by contractors who have to purchase their material from an approved products list,” Herman told the Northern Virginia Daily. “We are currently trying to figure out which products are on the roads, because not every guardrail end is the modified version or even Trinity for that matter.”

The Federal Highway Administration has told Trinity to submit a plan by Oct. 31 for new safety testing on the guardrails or lose eligibility for federal reimbursements. States that buy and install the guardrails seek reimbursement from the federal government to cover costs.

“If the crash test data comes back, and shows it’s a safe product, we’ll stop the removal,” Herman said. “But we felt it was not prudent to wait any longer.”

Trinity spokesman Jeff Eller said the company is moving to begin the testing requested by Virginia and the FHA.

“We do not believe it would be appropriate for any state to remove a product that has met all tests previously requested by the Federal Highway Administration,” Eller said.

Thirteen other states have removed the guardrails from their lists of qualified products. The New York Times story said Virginia would be the first state to remove existing guardrails.

Marshall told the Northern Virginia Daily that there is no word yet on if any of the guardrails will be replaced along Interstates 81 or 66 in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

Northern Virginia Daily staff writer Henry Culvyhouse contributed to this report. Contact him at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com