June 16, 2014

Road Worrier: Two NC crashes raise questions about guardrail safety

After crashes in which two cars in North Carolina were speared by the ends of guardrails, a manufacturer and state and federal agencies assert that the guardrails are safe.

Highway guardrails are supposed to make crashes easier on your car, not harder.

They’re installed at strategic spots to keep the car from bouncing off a wall or falling off a cliff. They’re engineered to absorb energy from the crash, so there will be less damage to the car and everybody inside it.

And that’s supposed to happen even when a car hits the very end of a guardrail. Thousands of guardrails across North Carolina are equipped with a squared-off cap called an end terminal, usually painted yellow or with yellow and black stripes.

It’s designed to transform the strong steel beam – shaped in cross-section like the letter W – into a thin, flat ribbon that curls away to one side.

But that’s not how it turned out on Jan. 27, when Jay S. Traylor of Graham drove his Isuzu into the end of a guardrail on Interstate 40 near Hillsborough in Orange County, at 65 mph.

“The end terminal sheared off, and the guardrail impaled the car,” said Traylor’s lawyer, Steven R. Lawrence of Austin, Texas. The rail hit Traylor like a giant spear. He lost both legs below the knee.

A few weeks later on Feb. 23, Darius J. Williams of Greensboro was going 80 mph when his Nissan ran off I-85 at Archdale in Randolph County. The guardrail end terminal plunged into his car, shoving him into the rear right seat. Williams was hospitalized with serious injuries, and charged with reckless driving.

What went wrong? Both drivers were apparently at fault for running off the road, but it’s not clear why both cars were speared with guardrails that should have peeled away instead.

Lawrence contends that the guardrail end terminals were dangerous and defective. He is representing Traylor and other drivers in product liability lawsuits against Trinity Industries, a guardrail manufacturer based in Dallas.

Trinity also is the target of a federal whistleblower lawsuit citing other crashes, filed in 2012 by Joshua Harman of Swords Creek, Va. The trial starts in July.

Harman, who is also in the business of making and installing guardrails, has a contentious history with Trinity. The company sued Harman for patent infringement in 2011, and the two parties later settled out of court.

North Carolina has more than 10,000 Trinity E-Plus end terminals – the model being challenged in court – installed on guardrails across the state. Other models are in use, too. Trinity says the E-Plus is safe, and so do state and federal officials.

“The Federal Highway Administration has approved this product and said it passed all of the testing,” said Kevin Lacy, chief state traffic engineer for the state Department of Transportation.

Lawrence and Harman blame the injuries suffered by Williams, Traylor and other drivers on a change made about nine years ago in the design of Trinity’s end terminal. The plaintiffs say Trinity and the federal agency had evaluated the old design but never safety-tested the new version. Trinity says the redesigned version was sufficiently tested.

The terminal works by extruding the W-shaped rail through an opening that flattens it into an almost harmless ribbon. Harman said Monday the new design fails by trying to squeeze the steel through a smaller aperture – too small to work effectively.

That makes the rail “lock up,” and the force of the crash sometimes “shears off the end terminal, and the W-beam goes through the vehicle,” Harman said.

DOT, which frequently probes possible causes of fatal highway accidents, has not studied either of these guardrail cases. Trinity spokesman Jack Todd said Monday there’s no way to figure out what happened in the North Carolina crashes without knowing vehicle weights, trajectories and other crash details.

“Without this and other information pertinent to each incident independently, it is impossible to determine how the end terminal system performed,” Todd said by email.

Harman and his campaign against Trinity were highlighted last week in a Bloomberg News story that also reported the Williams crash for the first time. Bloomberg said Williams suffered spinal injuries and fractures to his leg, arm, head and pelvis. Williams did not return calls from The News & Observer.

Todd noted Trinity’s previous lawsuit against Harman. Asked about their litigious history, Harman asserted that his campaign against Trinity had nothing to do with the previous patent lawsuit.

“I would have pursued this under any circumstances,” Harman said. “I’ve been in this industry for 20 years, and there’s no way I can turn a blind eye to what’s happening.”

Lacy and a Federal Highway Administration spokesman said they were not aware of significant numbers of crashes involving guardrail end terminals.

Guardrails are intended to reduce safety hazards, but they introduce their own risks, Lacy said.

“They do get hit,” Lacy said. “Part of a guardrail’s purpose is to be sturdy. When we put up a guardrail, we’re saying the hazard of not having a guardrail here is greater than the hazard of having it. We know that it presents its own problems.”

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