KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Guardrails are supposed to help save your life in a car crash, but a whistleblower says they could actually kill you, even the ones in Tennessee.
These devices have been on our roads for decades, but a few years ago, the company that manufactures most of them changed the design specifications without telling the Federal Highway Administration.
Dozens of deaths across the country are being blamed on these modified guard rail devices, including one here in east Tennessee. Elizabeth Elsevier was killed last year on Interstate 75 in Campbell County when her SUV hydroplaned and ran off the road into the end of the guardrail; that crash is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.
The device is called an end terminal – the steel head with yellow and black stripes you see on the end of a guardrail. It’s supposed to absorb the energy of your car if you hit it, slowing you down and feeding the rail out the side away from traffic. It should “pig tail” the guardrail around until your car stops safely.
Both the new and the old models were made by a company out of Texas called Trinity, and when Trinity decided to change the design back in 2004, they did it secretly without telling the government. A federal jury in October found the company liable for failing to talk to disclose the changes the Federal Highway Administration.
Internal company emails revealed in the lawsuit show doubts about the new model’s performance. It’s called the ET-Plus, and according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, there are more than 10,000 of them in Tennessee.
Trinity shortened the device and changed the feeder rail width from five inches to four inches to use less steel and “save a few bucks.”
Whistleblower and guard rail engineer Joshua Harman travels the country documenting accidents with the ET-Plus and he says the changes have been deadly.
“The guardrail can literally impale the vehicle, go through the car. There was one just last week in Chattanooga. These are not flukes, these are happening across the nation over and over and over,” he said.
In Tennessee there have been 1,441 end terminal crashes since 2012; 324 have resulted in injury and 27 have been fatal. TDOT says they believe most of these involved the ET-Plus, but they don’t think they have enough data to remove them from our roads.
“Even when these things do what they’re supposed to, they’re ugly accidents. If you’re going 50, 60 miles an hour and you hit the end of a guardrail, it’s an ugly accident,” said TDOT chief engineer Paul Degges. “Any type of crash is not safe. What I want to do is find ways to improve the safety of them. We are seeing some of these things kink, but I don’t know the specifics of the crashes.”
Degges also says they aren’t sure where all of these ET-Plus terminals are and TDOT doesn’t believe it’s “necessary at this time to perform a major investigation” to find out. However, TDOT estimates that 98 percent of the end terminals Tennessee has installed since 2006 have been the ET-Plus.
WATE 6 On Your Side stopped to measure random terminals around our viewing area and found the four inch models time and time again, even a new crushed one that had failed.
“As long as these products are allowed to stay on the road they are going to be more. It could be your family, it could be mine, it’s anybody. If you drive down the highways in Tennessee, if you drive down the highway you’re exposed, you are exposed to these safety hazards,” said Harman.
TDOT has removed the device from the state’s qualified products list and that means they can’t be installed in the future, but so far, there is no plan for a product recall.
We reached out to Trinity but as of press time we have not heard back.
Harman says there are more than 40 lawsuits around the country against Trinity and because of that, the Federal Highway Administration is requiring the company to retest the 4 inch end terminal. Those tests started Monday.
TDOT says it is waiting for the results and a recommendation from the Federal Highway Administration.