Missouri has become ground zero for a national debate about whether a widely used highway guardrail system is as safe as it should be, lawyers and safety advocates say.
A January fatality accident in Clay County and a huge federal jury verdict in Texas have energized the discussion.
Meanwhile, the safety concerns have prompted the Missouri Department of Transportation to suspend installation of the ET-Plus guardrail system, designed by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University and manufactured by Trinity Industries of Dallas.
Critics of the guardrails contend that design flaws make it more dangerous than the system’s predecessors. Spears of metal can break off and slice through vehicles, sometimes killing or maiming the occupants, they say.
Guardrail systems are supposed to slow a careening car or truck and bring it to a stop while minimizing injuries.
By one estimate, as many as 30,000 such guardrails have been installed on Missouri highways over the years. A recent study, funded in part by the state, found that ET-Plus is much more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than an earlier system.
The Missouri study should be a wake-up call to all states, said Steven Lawrence, a Texas lawyer who has worked on litigation against Trinity.
“These things aren’t working,” Lawrence said. “I don’t know where we’d be if we didn’t have the Missouri (transportation department) doing what they did.”
A spokesman for Trinity, however, defended the product and said a new round of federally mandated crash tests underway in San Antonio likely will demonstrate the safety of the guardrail system.
“We have full confidence in the ET-Plus guardrail system,” said Jeff Eller of Trinity Industries. “We have confidence it will pass.”
As Bradley J. Abeln drove into Kansas City the morning of Jan. 17, the controversy over the guardrail system barely had reached a murmur.
The Polo, Mo., construction worker was following a tractor-trailer south on Interstate 35 near Liberty Hospital when a driver to his left allegedly dozed off. Her vehicle drifted right and slammed into Abeln’s 1987 Ford Bronco, according to a state accident report.
According to court records, the Bronco spun and crashed broadside into the end of a Trinity guardrail. The sport utility vehicle hit what engineers call the “end terminal,” a heavy device that fits over the end of the guardrail.
The force of the crash thrust the guardrail into the driver’s seat. The Bronco rolled, ejecting Abeln and his passenger out of the rear of the vehicle, court records said. Abeln died at the scene. His passenger suffered serious injuries.
An end terminal is designed to absorb energy from a crash by sliding along the metal guardrail, extruding the guardrail as it passes to one side, like a flattened ribbon, away from the vehicle.
But a Clay County lawsuit filed on behalf of Abeln’s four young children alleged that undisclosed changes to the design in 2005 made the end terminal prone to “lock up” and bend the guardrail beam unpredictably.
“When the beam locked up, it contacted the driver’s door and drove the driver’s door into the driver’s seat,” said Lexington, Mo., attorney Kent Emison, who represents Abeln’s children.
Emison filed his lawsuit in June. By September, the state of Missouri had stopped installation of ET-Plus systems along the state’s highways.
Missouri is inventorying its guardrails so it knows exactly what equipment is in the field, said Sally Oxenhandler, a spokeswoman for the state’s transportation department.
The state also partially funded a study of the guardrail systems by the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Engineering. That study, released in October and contested by some experts, found that the ET-Plus design was almost four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than a previous model the company sold.
Missouri can be proud of how quickly it has moved to address this question, Emison said.
“The Missouri Department of Transportation was one of the first state (transportation departments) to recognize this problem, track the problem and take steps to make the roadways safer,” Emison said.
Kansas transportation officials said they have only 396 such systems in the state. But they also have halted the installation of any new ET-Plus systems on state roads.
According to federal transportation officials, 40 states have suspended installation of ET-Plus systems.
Much remains unsettled about the ET-Plus, both scientifically and legally.
In October, a Texas jury slapped Trinity with a $175 million judgment for purportedly defrauding the federal government by secretly changing the design specifications in 2005 without notifying the Federal Highway Administration, which reimburses states for guardrails on federal highway projects.
That judgment triples to $525 million under federal law.
After the verdict, the company predicted it would prevail in an appeal.
“Trinity believes the decision cannot and will not withstand legal scrutiny,” the company statement read.
The company suspended sales of the ET-Plus system and began working with federal regulators to set up the new San Antonio crash tests, which should wrap up in January.
Before the tests began, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill urged the acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration to consider a more extensive testing program before allowing further federal reimbursements for the use of the ET-Plus.
“Given the serious safety concerns that have been raised about the ET-Plus, thorough and rigorous testing is what is needed before states and the Federal Highway Administration make further determinations about whether to continue use of this product,” McCaskill wrote.