Info Demanded on Highway Guardrail Design

     WASHINGTON (CN) - A highway safety watchdog sued the U.S. Department of Transportation for information about changes in the dominant highway guardrail manufacturer's design that the group says could compromise safety by impaling motorists.
     Safety Research & Strategies, of Rehoboth, Mass., sued the federal agency in Federal Court. It claims that Dallas-based Trinity Industries' changes to highway guardrail design, made to save money, could make it more likely that motorists are impaled by guardrails, rather than protected by them.
     Trinity Industries is not a party to the complaint.
     Safety Research claims that Trinity "dominates the global highway guardrail market, and its guardrail end-terminals are installed on highways across the United States. In the late 1990s, Trinity launched the ET-Plus, a guardrail end-terminal system, also known as an Energy Absorbing Terminal, that is designed to absorb the kinetic energy of the striking vehicle in an impact. Once the end-terminal head is impacted, it is designed to extrude through a feeder chute, flattening the rail, or W-beam, which exits through the terminal head like a metal ribbon, dissipating the crash energy and bringing the vehicle safely to a halt. FHWA first approved the ET-Plus in 1999."
     In 2005, Trinity changes the design of the ET-Plus system, reducing the size of the terminal extruder head from 5 to 4 inches, "likely to save material and manufacturing costs," according to the complaint.
     It continues: "The newer version of the ET-Plus, manufactured in 2005, also has a dimensional change to the height of the extruder head, through which the rail is extruded. This change may cause the rails to hang or lock up in the extruder head, feeder chute or channel. Instead of ribboning out, as originally designed, the rail allegedly folds back to form a spear, intruding into the vehicle and potentially impaling its occupants."
     Safety Research claims that Trinity changed the design "without specifically notifying
     FHWA, as required by federal law, until seven years later, when a patent dispute between Trinity and SPIG Industries, of Bristol, Virginia brought this modification to light."
     "In the last two years, questions about the safety and field performance of the ET-Plus have been raised by state departments of transportation individually and via the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials ('AASHTO'). In the fall of 2012, three of its 21 members responded to a survey about the field performance of guardrail terminals indicating that the end terminals were involved in three severe vehicle crashes that resulted in serious injuries and deaths; two of the three agencies specifically referenced the ET-Plus. AASHTO asked FHWA to re-review its approval of the ET-Plus and document the modified barrier system's crashworthiness under the federal criteria, NCHRP 350. More recently, in January 2014, the Nevada Department of Transportation informed Trinity that its ET-Plus terminal would no longer be considered approved equipment because of the 2005 modification that was not disclosed. Trinity was required to inform the state of the product modifications and failed to do so.
     "Safety questions concerning Trinity guardrails have been the subject of numerous news stories in the U.S. and abroad, giving the issue a high profile. To journalists, FHWA has claimed that the controversy is a business dispute between competitors. Internally, however, documents suggest that officials within the agency have admitted that there are valid field performance issues with these products."
     Safety Research claims the defendants' responses to its Freedom of Information Act requests have been inadequate. It seeks documents and responses to 16 specific questions about the guardrails and the defendants' testing and examination of them, if any.
     Safety Research is represented by David Sobel.