Trinity Guardrail Study Finding Fatal Flaw Faulted in New Review

A study linking deadly highway crashes to a Trinity Industries Inc. guardrail system was found to have fundamental flaws by independent reviewers brought in after states banned the safety devices.

At least 42 states and the District of Columbia have suspended installations of the system, some of them based partly on the study of Trinity’s ET-Plus guardrail end terminal, which is designed to absorb the impact of a crash. The study found that the device was almost four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than its predecessor model.

The independent review made public today questions the validity of that study, faulting its methodology and its conclusions, which were called “inappropriate” and “questionable.”

The review of the study comes as lawmakers press the Federal Highway Administration, which vets the safety of highway devices, for more stringent crash testing of the Trinity device. About 200,000 ET-Plus systems are installed in the U.S., the agency has said.

Last month, the federal agency made a public call for information on accidents involving Trinity’s ET-Plus guardrail system, which lawsuits have tied to at least eight deaths. Crash survivors have claimed that the ET-Plus can lock up when hit, piercing cars instead of giving way as intended.

The review consists of four separate reports, each written by an engineering professor without ties to the guardrail industry, according to the FHWA. All four reviewers said the study didn’t account for key variables that could affect the crashworthiness of a guardrail system, such as the nearby traffic volume, speed limit and other road conditions.

Severe Injury

The reviewers also questioned the study’s methodology, which only included crashes involving severe injury or death.

The study, released in October, was conducted by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and paid for by Missouri’s transportation department and the Safety Institute, a product-safety advocacy group.

Kevin Schrum, the research engineer who authored the study, said he excluded consideration of minor crashes because his goal was to compare performance of guardrail systems in the most severe instances. Those kinds of crashes are also more likely to take place along higher-speed, higher-volume highways, which helps account for the roadside factors pointed out as important by the reviewers, he said today in a phone interview.

The FHWA commissioned the new review from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. Both agencies are part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Next Steps

“We wanted to have a full understanding of the conclusions that it came to,” Tony Furst, the agency’s associate administrator for safety, said in a phone interview. “We are walking through this, pulling information as we get it and evaluating the information that we have to determine next steps.”

Trinity, based in Dallas, has said it doesn’t believe the study presents an accurate assessment of the safety of the ET-Plus.

The system is undergoing government-mandated crash tests by an accredited laboratory in San Antonio, Texas. Based on the final results, along with crash data and other related information, the FHWA will consider whether to require further tests or an evaluation of the device’s performance on roadways, the agency has said.

So far, the system “appears to have performed within the company’s expectations,” Trinity said today in a statement.

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