Bristol, VA (WJHL) — The Virginia Department of Transportation is in the process of removing and replacing guardrail end terminals in three districts across the Commonwealth amid concerns the products might fail in a head on crash.
VDOT launched the pilot program in its Bristol, Salem, and Richmond Districts last December and expects to complete program at the end of February.
The “risk-based replacement plan” comes one year after VDOT announced it had conducted an “extensive review” of end terminals prompted by concerns that began in October 2014.
Click here to read VDOT’s December 2015 announcement on guardrail safety.
“A few years ago we were made aware of concerns with a modified version of the ET Plus guardrail terminal,” said VDOT spokesperson Marshall Herman in an interview with News Channel 11. “We started to do some investigation on our own.”
In October 2014, a federal court jury in Texas found Trinity Industries, the manufacturer of the popular ET Plus end terminal, had modified the product without telling the federal government or state departments of transportation.
Joshua Harmon, a Bristol area guardrail manufacturer, filed the lawsuit which is still under appeal. He said Trinity Industries changed a guide channel width from five inches wide to four inches wide.
“The original five inch that was tested and approved worked flawlessly,” Harmon said.
Harmon claimed the modification makes the terminal to fail in certain head-on crashes sometimes causing the guardrail to penetrate the vehicle instead of peeling it away as it was originally designed.
“My point was to get the truth out as quick as possible no matter how it got out,” Harmon said.
Trinity Industries denies Harmon’s claims that the company committed fraud and that the product fails in crashes, and the company points out that product still has the support of the Federal Highway Administration.
Here’s a statement released by Trinity spokesman Jeff Eller in response to questions about VDOT’s risk-based replacement plan.
“The facts are the FHWA ‘conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the safety performance of the ET Plus’ with a ‘rigorous data-driven analysis.’ It concluded the ET Plus meets the appropriate safety criteria. The ET Plus has passed crash testing, has been approved for installation nationwide since January 2000, and remains in use on roads throughout the U.S.”
By the end of 2014, Virginia and several other states had started to removed the modified ET Plus end terminal from their “approved products list.” VDOT allowed the original 5-inch terminal to remain on its approved list. Tennessee’s Department of Transportation pulled all ET Plus terminals off its approved list, essentially banning the purchase of the products.
Virginia’s Attorney General joined the fraud lawsuit against Trinity. And VDOT went a step further, conducting its own independent crash tests of the modified ET-Plus end terminal in 2015.
In 2016, VDOT tested other end terminals on its approved products list. “We did that to see if there was a need for priority and the need to prioritize the terminals we’re replacing, not just ET Plus,” Herman said.
Trinity Industries criticized VDOT’s crash test claiming they were designed to fail, a claim VDOT denied saying it had hired an independent testing facility with no ties to Trinity or VDOT.
“The results were enough to cause concern,” Herman said. “We decided these were a priority to replace on Virginia’s roadways.
Herman said VDOT is in the process of replacing the modified ET-Plus terminals as well as an X-Lite end terminal. As of Monday evening, the manufacturer of that terminal had not yet responded to a request for comment.
VDOT says between October 31, 2014 and January 31, 2017, it’s aware of 385 crashes in Virginia involving the modified ET Plus terminal, 7 of which involved penetrations of the guardrail into the vehicle.
VDOT says it’s aware of 32 crashes in the same time period involving X-Lite terminals with one of those crashes involving a guardrail penetration.
‘It’s up to VDOT to look at the safety on our roadways, and if we see any trends that are concerning, we’re going to do something about it,” Herman said.
VDOT’s risk-based replacement program includes plans to remove and replace 5 terminals in the Bristol District, 5 terminals in the Salem District, and 20 terminals in the Richmond District.
VDOT estimates the cost of the project at between $200,000 to $250,000.
Tennessee Takes A Different Approach
TDOT removed all ET-Plus terminals from its approved products list on October 28, 2014. But while VDOT is replacing what it calls “obsolete” terminals in high-risk areas, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has decided to leave the terminals in place until they’re damaged in a wreck.
In an interview last October, the department’s Chief Engineer told News Channel 11 he sees no reason to proactively remove the ET Plus terminals since they’re still approved by the Federal Highway Administration.
“Looking at our existing inventory, they met the safety criteria,” said Paul Degges “We just don’t believe that it is appropriate to pull those up.”
Degges says TDOT is aware of Virginia’s crash tests which VDOT said “confirmed concerns that there are vulnerabilities with the modified ET Plus when struck at a shallow angle (5-degree).”
Click here to see VDOT’s crash test results on the modified ET Plus terminal.
“We disagree with that testing,” Degges said last October. “The testing that we have seen shows these guardrails are sufficient.”
“Very few states have made the decision that Virginia has,” Degges said.
In that October interview, he told News Channel 11 TDOT estimated there were approximately 10,000 ET-Plus terminals on Tennessee interstates and state highways. But on January 24th, a spokesman said a more accurate inventory revealed that “TDOT has 21,094 ET Plus Guardrail Terminals on Tennessee interstates and state routes.”
TDOT says there are 2,501 ET-Plus Guardrail terminals in Northeast Tennessee.
It’s unclear how many of those terminals in Tennessee are the 5-inch and how many are the modified 4-inch. Last October, Degges told News Channel 11 he was aware of a modified version of the ET-Plus terminal on Tennessee highways. “It turned out that they (Trinity Industries) had modified the end terminal without going through the proper process of getting crash testing and all done,” Degges said.
But in a request for clarification on the number of modified compared to non-modified terminals, TDOT spokesman Mark Nagi said on February 3rd, “TDOT has never made any distinction in this product based on guide channel width. A claim was made that the channel width had been changed, but we looked to FHWA to investigate and provide guidance on this matter.”
“That’s irresponsible,” said Joshua Harmon. “That’s totally irresponsible.”
He praised Virginia for its risk-based pilot program, and he says he’ll continue to push for a national recall of the modified terminal.
“This is serious enough that we really need to escalate this to the point they get removed from the highway immediately,” Harmon said.
VDOT plans to conclude its pilot program on February 28th and compile results for a state-wide replacement plan. The agency plans to share its finding with other states.
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