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Lawsuit Alleges Deadly Fault at Guardrails' End

Published June 12, 2014

Publicly traded Trinity Industries
Inc. produces an
energy-absorbing end terminal,
the ET-Plus, mounted on
guardrails across the U.S.

In a whistleblower suit heading to
trial as early as July, self-declared
safety advocate Joshua Harman is
suing on behalf of the U.S.,
alleging that Trinity changed the
dimensions of the ET-Plus
between 2002 and 2005 without
notifying the Federal Highway
Administration. End terminals with
the new dimensions can
malfunction when hit by a vehicle,
he alleges.

A guardrail and end terminal, like this approximate rendering of an ET-Plus unit, are designed to absorb and dissipate energy when struck by a moving vehicle.

How It's Meant to Work

When a vehicle hits the impact plate, the end terminal is supposed to begin moving: the W-shaped guardrail is meant to feed through it, becoming a flattened steel ribbon that curls away from the road. The process absorbs energy as the car is slowed.

An ET-Plus terminal after a crash. The length of flattened guardrail that fed through it can be seen.

Units With Smaller Dimensions Lock Up, Suit Alleges

Harman measured more recent ET-Plus
terminals and alleged in his suit that
Trinity had decreased the dimensions
compared with the version that had
gained FHWA approval, including in:

An ET-Plus end terminal that Harman alleges locked up after a crash in Tennessee. He said this one had narrower dimensions than those approved by the FHWA.

Harman alleges in his lawsuit that the smaller dimensions can prevent the guardrail from properly traveling through the feeder channel, causing a 'throat lock' that he says he has documented at many accident sites. A locked mechanism can spear the vehicle, he alleges.

Trinity, in comments and legal filings, has said it is confident in its product and that the changes it made were cosmetic and didn't require re-approval. The terminal is tested to perform in several scenarios but can't account for all real-world angles of impact, vehicle weights and speeds, it says.

Sources: Federal Highway Administration; ET-Plus patent filed by Texas A&M University; Joshua Harman

GRAPHIC: ALEX TRIBOU / BLOOMBERG VISUAL DATA