The Virginia Department of Transportation recently completed a pilot installation of new guardrail “end terminals” that will gradually replace older models the department has identified as a potential threat to driver safety.
However, these new guardrail products for Charlottesville could be few and far between for years to come.
End terminals are devices installed on some guardrails to guide the metal rail away from a vehicle in the event of a head-on collision with a guardrail.
VDOT spokeswoman Marshall Herman said the department has targeted no more than six “obsolete” end terminals in Albemarle County for replacement thus far.
Charlottesville’s Department of Public Works, which manages guardrails within city limits, does not plan to replace guardrail products disapproved by VDOT until they show damage.
“As with any obsolete standards, we want to move forward to new ones,” said city spokeswoman Miriam Dickler. “Charlottesville will phase out its current guardrail products over time.”
Dickler said an update to the city’s Standards and Design Manual, scheduled to be presented to the City Council at the end of this year, is likely to include new specifications for guardrail end terminals.
One common end terminal product has been at the center of high-profile lawsuits in recent years.
In 2012, Virginia guardrail manufacturer Joshua Harman filed a whistleblower lawsuit against a larger rival, Trinity Highway Products, alleging that Trinity had made changes to the design of its ET Plus terminal without telling federal or state regulators.
Harman also claimed that guardrails were spearing vehicles and their occupants after becoming jammed inside the modified ET Plus during high-speed collisions.
When the case went to trial in a federal court in Texas in 2015, Trinity was found guilty of defrauding taxpayers by secretly modifying the ET Plus. The judge issued a $663 million judgment against the company, with $199 million going to Harman and the rest to the federal government. Trinity is appealing the decision.
Virginia also has filed a lawsuit against Trinity, which has been stayed until a ruling is made on Trinity’s appeal of the Texas decision. In 2015, VDOT commissioned crash tests of the ET Plus at an independent facility in California, and in December of that year, VDOT announced it would no longer install ET Plus terminals, and would implement a risk-based replacement plan for the product.
Trinity has dismissed Virginia’s tests of the ET Plus, claiming that VDOT tried to make the product fail to support the commonwealth’s litigation against the company.
“No other state in the country thinks they have to test their products separately and distinctly from what federal administrations require,” said Trinity spokesman Jeff Eller.
“The ET Plus has an unbroken chain of reimbursement eligibility from the Federal Highway Administration,” Eller added. “It has never been proven to be defective.”
The FHWA retested the ET Plus in 2015 and found that it still met federal performance standards. However, more than 30 states have prohibited further installation of the device.
In 2016, VDOT conducted further crash testing of guardrail products that were still approved for use in Virginia. Scheduling these tests took longer than expected, VDOT said, delaying the start of its guardrail replacement pilot program by several months.
After the second round of crash tests, VDOT also removed two end terminals manufactured by Lindsay Transportation Solutions from its approved products list.
VDOT is replacing the modified ET Plus and other terminals with ones that pass testing criteria set forth in the Manual for Assessing Safety Hardware, published by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in 2009.
Last December, VDOT began a pilot program to install MASH-approved terminals in three of the department’s administrative districts. Herman said the MASH pilot will help VDOT and contractors identify training needs, site preparation techniques and preferred tools for installing MASH terminals.
When the pilot concluded on Feb. 28, contractors under VDOT’s supervision had installed 29 Sequential Kinking Terminals, manufactured by Road Systems Inc. — five in the Salem District, 10 in the Bristol District and 14 in the Richmond District.
Herman said VDOT spent between $200,000 and $250,000 on the MASH pilot.
The FHWA still accepts testing protocols outlined by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program in 1993. But in 2019, it will only reimburse states for purchases of MASH-approved terminals.
“We think it is disingenuous of VDOT to ride a high horse by saying they are replacing the ET Plus, when they are just moving to a different standard,” Eller said. “The FHWA has been telling states to move toward MASH for the last 10 years.”
Paul Oberdorfer, director of Charlottesville public works, said the city will not continue installing the ET Plus and will eventually replace damaged terminals with MASH-approved models. But the city does not plan to preemptively remove guardrail products no longer approved by VDOT.
Oberdorfer said Charlottesville’s low speed limits made it much less likely for an end terminal to fail and cause serious injury on a city road, as opposed to an interstate highway.
VDOT has located only a fraction of thousands of disapproved end terminals on Virginia roads. Until recently, VDOT’s guardrail inventories did not specify which end terminals had been installed.
While the MASH pilot was taking place, VDOT inspected 480 guardrail terminals in high-priority locations throughout the state and found 113 disapproved terminals in these locations. VDOT inspected guardrails in 15 high-priority locations in the Culpeper District, which includes Albemarle and eight other counties.
Eleven of these locations were on Interstate 64 in Albemarle. Herman said VDOT found disapproved terminals in six of the Culpeper District’s high-priority locations.
An investigation by Charlottesville Tomorrow in January found more than 50 modified ET Plus terminals on the eastbound and westbound stretches of I-64 in Albemarle County.