Colliding with a guardrail is a surprisingly common occurrence on California highways. When a driver loses control and either sideswipes a guardrail or fishtails into one, the car may slide along the guardrail as it slows to a stop. That isn’t good for the car but it’s better for the car’s occupants than a head-on collision. A gradual loss of velocity makes a collision survivable, while the immediate transition from highway speed to a complete stop usually results in serious injuries, even if airbags and other restraint systems protect occupants from death.
When a car hits the end of a guardrail, the impact may be similar to a head-on collision. A guardrail system designed and manufactured by Trinity Highway Products, known as ET-Plus, has been marketed as providing an extra measure of safety to drivers. The manufacturers claim that posts holding the end terminal in place are designed to break, causing the guardrail (and the colliding car) to slide along the guardrail, permitting the car to lose velocity before coming to a stop.
CalTrans accepted the marketing claims and installed the ET-Plus end terminals on many California guardrails. Unfortunately, the evidence is now clear that the ET-Plus system poses a threat to California drivers.
In 2005, Trinity changed the design of the ET-Plus in a way that reduced its manufacturing costs. It failed to disclose that fact to its buyers, including CalTans. Instead of traveling down the guardrail, a design flaw causes the end terminal to lock in place. Crashing into a guardrail with no end terminal may be safer than crashing into a defective ET-Plus.
Lawsuits against Trinity have alleged that the ET-Plus is responsible for multiple deaths and injuries. Those suits contend that lives would have been saved if Trinity had not changed its product design and concealed that fact from states that purchase the system.
Rather than admitting its responsibility for selling states a defective product, Trinity has blamed states for faulty installation of the ET-Plus. A whistleblower put those claims to rest by revealing that Trinity reduced the width of the unit without advising buyers of the change.
An investigation by the Government Accounting Office determined that crash tests involving the ET-Plus are often unreliable because some of the labs that conduct the tests are owned by the same parent organization that owns Trinity. In addition, some of the tests were conducted by Texas Transportation Institute, which owns the patent to ET-Plus and licensed it to Trinity for millions of dollars. States apparently overlooked obvious conflicts of interest in relying on crash test data when they purchased the ET-Plus system.
Virginia recently conducted its own crash tests and confirmed that the ET-Plus system is defective. It banned future purchases of the ET-Plus and has begun to remove the end terminals from its guardrails.
CalTrans suspended the installation of ET-Plus end terminals in 2014. It recently finalized the decision to stop buying the end terminals. That would seem to constitute a recognition that the end terminals are unsafe, but CalTrans is refusing to remove the 3,600 end terminals that it already installed unless and until one is damaged in an accident.
The ET-Plus represents about 10% of all guardrail end terminals on California highways. About 700 are installed in the Bay Area.
Asked why California is not following Virginia’s lead, a CalTrans spokesperson said the agency could not identify a safety issue with the ET-Plus end pieces. That answer seems inconsistent with the decision not to buy or install more of them.
It could be that CalTrans doesn’t want to spend the money to correct the problem. It’s also possible that CalTrans doesn’t want to be seen as admitting that a problem exists.
California drivers who are injured after crashing into the end of a guardrail should consult a personal injury attorney. If the guardrail end terminal was an ET-Plus, it may be possible to bring legal action against both Trinity for making a defective product and CalTrans for failing to correct a known danger to motorists. A California personal injury attorney can help injured drivers and passengers sort out responsibility for their injuries.