A damaged guardrail on U.S. 29 South near the Nelson County border. This guardrail end terminal appears to have effectively absorbed the impact of a crash that occurred Jan. 13, 2017. Credit: Credit: Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow

In 2015, the Virginia Department of Transportation concluded that a guardrail product used on roads throughout the state was defective and could cause the metal rails to spear vehicles and their occupants in a head-on crash.

VDOT announced it would remove these “functionally obsolete” guardrail “end terminals” on roads that presented the greatest risk of a life-threatening collision.

Virginia also took the precaution of commissioning its own independent crash tests of guardrail products while searching for a replacement. While that move was unique among transportation departments in the United States, VDOT has fallen behind its original schedule for guardrail safety improvements. An investigation by Charlottesville Tomorrow has found few replacements on roads in Albemarle County and identified dozens of guardrail end terminals no longer approved for use by VDOT that are still in place on the stretch of Interstate 64 within the county.

Crashes and controversies

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. Ongoing legal disputes over one common end terminal have drawn considerable media attention to these devices and crashes involving them.

In 2012, Virginia guardrail manufacturer Joshua Harman filed a whistleblower lawsuit against a rival company, Trinity Highway Products, alleging that a modified version of its ET Plus terminal caused guardrails to lock up and tear into a vehicle, sometimes maiming or killing the occupants.

“It’s a death trap,” Harman said of the modified ET Plus. “It does not work, period.”

“It’s a death trap,
it does not work, period.”

Joshua Harman

Harman also claimed that Trinity had made changes to the ET Plus without telling federal or state regulators. The Federal Highway Administration tested and approved a modified version of ET Plus in 2005. But a change in the width of the end terminal — from 5 inches to 4 —  was not disclosed to the FHWA or any state agencies until 2012. Trinity has said this omission was accidental.

Harman, who owns SPIG Industry in Bristol and SELCO Construction Services in Swords Creek, traversed the country for years to obtain proof of undisclosed modifications to the ET Plus. He also photographed scenes of gruesome crashes that involved the modified terminals.

In 2015, a Texas federal judge issued a $663 million judgment against Trinity for defrauding taxpayers, with $199 million going to Harman and the rest to the federal government. Trinity is appealing the decision.

Although more than 30 states have prohibited further installation of the ET Plus, the product remains eligible for federal reimbursement. The FHWA commissioned new tests of the device in early 2015 and found that it still met federal performance standards.

“If you install [the ET Plus] right and maintain it, it works under the standards it was designed for.”

Jeff Eller

“If you install [the ET Plus] right and maintain it, it works under the standards it was designed for,” said Trinity spokesman Jeff Eller. “No court has determined that the ET Plus is defective.”

Harman said the FHWA’s continued approval of the ET Plus was irresponsible. “They are ignoring the elephant in the room and letting these things continue to kill people,” he said.

Harman also said his companies are not bidding on any ET Plus replacement work.

Virginia filed its own lawsuit against Trinity in 2014. Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s complaint, filed in Richmond Circuit Court, alleges that “Trinity … made millions in revenue from this defective, unapproved and improperly tested product at the expense of Virginia and her taxpayers.”

The case has been stayed until a ruling is made on Trinity’s appeal of the Texas federal court decision.

VDOT investigates

VDOT began investigating potential safety issues with the modified ET Plus in 2014. The department hired Karco Engineering LLC, an independent testing facility in California, to conduct crash tests on the product in October 2015.

In one test, a pickup truck that hit a modified ET Plus terminal at a 5-degree angle had its tire punctured by a buckling guardrail, before flipping onto its side. VDOT subsequently removed the modified ET Plus from its list of approved products.

The ET Plus was designed to meet testing protocols outlined by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program in 1993. The NCHRP-350 procedures do not include a 5-degree angle crash test, but they encourage states to, when appropriate, “devise other critical test conditions consistent with the range of expected impact conditions.”

Trinity has dismissed the results of VDOT’s tests, claiming that they were set up to make the ET Plus fail, therefore supporting Virginia’s litigation against the company.

“We design products to meet federal standards,” said Eller. “Virginia is the only state … that decided to do their own testing [of the ET Plus]. It is their prerogative to conduct tests, but we believe they were not done under traditional, standard conditions.”

Scheduling delays, slow progress

In December 2015, VDOT announced that it would replace damaged ET Plus terminals and implement a risk-based replacement plan for the product. VDOT also said it would test other guardrail products currently approved for use in Virginia.

VDOT chief engineer Garrett W. Moore set a target date of March 1, 2016, for the completion of these tests. But Karco Engineering could not accommodate VDOT in its testing schedule until August. Two terminals manufactured by Lindsay Transportation Solutions showed vulnerabilities and were removed from VDOT’s approved products list in September 2016.

VDOT is still working to determine where modified ET Plus terminals have been installed. VDOT was unable to provide Charlottesville Tomorrow with an inventory of guardrail types and locations in Albemarle.

After the crash tests were completed, VDOT prioritized locations to inspect based on the speed limit of the road, the amount of traffic it receives and the guardrail’s proximity to the road.

“The agency needed to review data collected from crash tests of approved products before creating a replacement schedule,” said VDOT spokeswoman Marshall Herman. “VDOT didn’t want to replace bad with bad.”

VDOT’s initial action steps called for a risk-based replacement schedule for guardrail products to be created by April 1, 2016. In October, Charlottesville Tomorrow requested a list of high-priority guardrail locations in VDOT’s Culpeper District, which includes Albemarle and eight other counties.

On Dec. 22, VDOT provided a list of 15 high-priority guardrail locations in the Culpeper District, 11 of which were on Interstate 64 in Albemarle County. Herman said those inspections will take place after Feb. 28.

Interstate investigation

On Jan. 13, Charlottesville Tomorrow photographed most of the ET Plus terminals on the eastbound and westbound stretches of I-64 in Albemarle County. A large majority of the 62 terminals photographed were the controversially modified version.

Eller and Harman both said that the modified, 4-inch-wide ET Plus and the older, 5-inch version can be visually identified without taking measurements.

On the modified ET Plus, the channel that encases the guardrail and the head designed to receive the impact of a crash are joined by a raised “fillet weld.” The original ET Plus, which is still approved for use by VDOT, uses a flat “butt weld” for this joint. VDOT acknowledges this distinctive difference in its approved products list.

Harman reviewed Charlottesville Tomorrow’s photos of ET Plus terminals. He said he was “100 percent sure” that 53 of the terminals were the modified 4-inch ET Plus and seven were the 5-inch version. He said that the final two photos were most likely the 4-inch version.

Eller said most ET Plus terminals on U.S. roads today were the newer, 4-inch version. Trinity has not manufactured the 5-inch version in over decade, and many of them have since been replaced by the modified version.

VDOT and the FHWA declined to review Charlottesville Tomorrow’s photos.

“We don’t encourage this kind of investigation without the proper permits, personal protective equipment and VDOT personnel,” said VDOT’s Herman.

“It would be difficult for FHWA to say with 100 percent accuracy that the modified ET Plus can be identified without measurements,” said Neil Gaffney, a public affairs specialist for the agency.

The work ahead

As of Jan. 3, VDOT has only replaced four ET Plus terminals in Albemarle County after they were damaged by vehicles.

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, created by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. MASH standards are designed to reflect the larger size of vehicles on the road today.

In 2019, the FHWA will only reimburse states for MASH-approved terminals. But it will not require states to remove terminals designed for older standards, as VDOT has chosen to do.

As of Jan. 3, VDOT has only replaced four ET Plus terminals in Albemarle County after they were damaged by vehicles. It also has installed some MASH-approved terminals in a pilot program for guardrail upgrades that started in the Bristol, Richmond and Salem districts last year.

As of Jan. 18, only 13 terminals had been installed through this pilot program. Additional replacements are scheduled to occur in the Richmond District this week. Herman said VDOT will begin replacing guardrails in other parts of the state after the pilot concludes next month.

“MASH-tested products have their own distinct installation requirements that are new to VDOT and its contractors,” said Herman. “VDOT is moving forward with replacements very deliberately to make sure the work is done reliably.”

View a SLIDESHOW of ET-Plus Guardrail Crashes in Virginia

After VDOT replaces guardrail terminals on major highways, its focus will shift to Virginia’s vast network of secondary roads. The department expects that a statewide transition to MASH products will take at least several years.

“This is not something that happens quickly,” said VDOT Commissioner Charles Kilpatrick. “There are thousands of [guardrail end terminals] in Virginia, on all kinds of roads.”

Eller, of Trinity, said Virginia has been “incredibly slow” in transitioning to MASH standards. “Other states are moving rapidly to MASH. It’s taken [Virginia] well over a year to even get their pilot out the door,” he said.

VDOT has given provisional approval to just one MASH guardrail product so far — the Sequential Kinking Terminal, manufactured by Road Systems Inc. Trinity has stopped selling its MASH-approved SoftStop end terminal to Virginia contractors since the Commonwealth sued the company.

Virginia remains the only state to officially recall the ET Plus from its roads.

“VDOT has been a leader in addressing this,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Lane. “We conducted independent tests, even though we were criticized … VDOT has been very proactive.”

“Virginia is being very cautious in its approach,” said Harman. “But it is acting more responsibly than any state in the union.”

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Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.