Trinity Cleared of Guardrail Cover-Up by U.S. Safety Agency

The Federal Highway Administration rejected assertions from two guardrail-industry professionals who said Trinity Industries Inc. tried to hide defects in its roadway safety system by secretly developing a version of the shock-absorbing device less prone to malfunctioning.

The FHWA finding Wednesday bolsters Trinity’s position that it has reported to the agency all “fabrication adjustments” to its ET-Plus guardrail system since 2005.

“There is no evidence in the data that there are multiple versions of the ET-Plus device” since it was modified in 2005, according to the report.

In October, a Texas jury found that Trinity defrauded the government by failing to disclose design changes to its guardrail system in 2005 -- changes that lawsuits link to at least eight deaths. The revisions went unreported to regulators for about seven years and, according to the suits, caused guardrails to lock up and penetrate crashing vehicles.

In December, Bloomberg News reported assertions of the two guardrail-industry professionals that Trinity made another, more recent round of secret changes to address the alleged car-piercing defect. One was Joshua Harman, the successful whistle-blower plaintiff in the Texas suit who also runs guardrail businesses in Virginia; the other was Dean Sicking, a paid consultant in the lawsuit against Trinity.

Federal Money

About 200,000 of the Trinity systems exist in the U.S., according to the FHWA. The agency’s approval of the ET-Plus, originally granted in 2000, has opened up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money to help reimburse states that purchased it.

In Wednesday’s report, the FHWA and a coalition of state transportation departments concluded that ET-Plus systems are largely consistent with one another throughout the country and with the product’s design specifications from 2005.

Trinity shares rose 6.7 percent in New York trading after gaining as much as 8.1 percent on the news.

The new report “validates what we have consistently said,” Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Dallas-based Trinity, said in an e-mailed comment. “There is one version of the ET-Plus.”

The report follows the FHWA’s Feb. 6 finding that the ET-Plus passed the first four of eight government-mandated crash tests. Final results from the tests, which ended in January, are pending.

Steel Cap

The ET-Plus system features a steel cap that mounts around the blunt end of a guardrail. When hit under certain conditions, the flat end-cap is meant to move along a W-shaped rail, forcing it through a narrow slot and flattening it into a ribbon. The shock-absorbing process is designed to help the vehicle come to a stop.

Lawsuits allege the system, as modified in 2005, can lock on impact, turning into a spear and potentially impaling crashing cars.

In interviews with Bloomberg News, Harman and Sicking said Trinity had changed the ET-Plus again since 2005, increasing some dimensions to make it less likely the system would jam up during a crash.

The new report draws on measurements taken by FHWA engineers of 1,048 Trinity guardrail systems installed alongside roadways in five states. It also relies on previously undisclosed design information provided by Trinity, which lists the acceptable leeway for specific dimensions of the ET-Plus system, according to the report.

Guide Channel

While the engineers measured several dimensions, the report focuses on two of them: the width of the slot and the height of rectangular guide channel, which feeds the guardrail into the slot.

All of the measured guardrail slots fell within the allowed design tolerance, the report said. More than 95 percent of the tested guide channels had heights that were within the acceptable range as well, the FHWA found.

In phone interviews Wednesday, Harman and Sicking questioned the design tolerances provided by Trinity to the FHWA. The report relies on those tolerances to determine whether an ET-Plus system falls within specification. Manufacturers don’t typically provide that information to the FHWA when seeking acceptance of a safety device.

“These design tolerances -- I would love to see where that’s published,” said Harman, adding that he’s never seen the design tolerances before. “Where did these dimensions come from?”

Transportation Institute

According to the report, the tolerances were determined by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station. Its researchers helped invent the ET-Plus system and they make royalties from its sales. Sicking helped invent the predecessor to the ET-Plus and now earns royalties from its main competitor.

“The ET-Plus guardrail end-terminal system is a robust system,” Dean Alberson, the institute’s assistant agency director, said in an e-mail Wednesday.

The joint report voiced some uncertainty about another dimension under review: the length of the guide channel. According to the report, 17.1 percent of the measured ET-Plus systems -- mostly those installed in California -- had guide channels shorter than the permitted minimum.

The report said it “could not determine” whether “dimensional variances beyond the design tolerances, either individually or in combination, would affect the performance of the ET-Plus device.”

‘Minor Difference’

In a February court filing, Brian Coon, an engineer hired to testify against Trinity in the whistle-blower trial, said a longer guide channel could improve the system’s performance. In response, Trinity said it was “illogical” to claim a “minor fractional difference” could affect the ET-Plus.

In the most recent round of government-required crash tests, all of the tested units had guide-channel lengths that were within specification.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has been critical of the FHWA’s evaluation of Trinity’s system, said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday that the report was flawed.

“The agency neglected key measurements, rejected critical manufacturer information and completely ignored devices used in New England and the northeast,” he said.

The report’s data comes from South Carolina, Illinois, Texas, Arizona and California.

The Texas case is Harman, on behalf of the U.S. v. Trinity Industries Inc., 12-cv-00089, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Texas (Marshall).

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