Latest News 2017 November The Difference an Inch Can Make

The Difference an Inch Can Make

In the 1980s, highway safety experts were facing a problem. Guardrails were lining America's highways to keep cars from rolling or crash off the road—but when cars struck the ends of guardrails head-on, it was worse than if the rail weren't there at all. Vehicles and motorists would get impaled by the force of impact, so highway designers needed a solution.

At first, Texas designers thought burying the end of the guardrail into the ground was a good solution. Instead, the rail's end formed a ramp that could cause cars to roll or launch into the air. However, in 1989, the Texas Department of Transportation, in conjunction with engineers at Texas A&M University and developers at Syro Steel, Co., created the ET-2000 guardrail terminal endcap.

The terminal, which is a flat steel plate with black and yellow stripes you've seen on the side of the highway, had a simple but ingenious design. When struck, the plate slides back on the railing through a 5-inch slot, causing the railing behind the plate to crumple and fold like an accordion. The result was just short of miraculous: vehicles would come to a controlled stop while the railing would absorb the force of the impact.

The ET-2000 did for highway safety what the airbag did for car safety. Installers noted that motorists would walk away from head-on collisions that might have killed them only a few years earlier.

In 1992, Trinity Industries bought Syro Steel, developed a lighter version of the ET-2000 called the ET-Plus, and sold ET-Plus systems to transportation authorities nationwide. Eventually, the ET-Plus system was lining thousands of miles of highway across the United States.

Then, after 2005, people started dying—and there were reports that striking the end of an ET-Plus system was killing motorists or amputating their limbs on impact.

What Happened in 2005?

Officially, nothing. Unofficially, Trinity Industries altered the design of the system without notifying federal authorities. The feeder channel—the part of the terminal that pushes the railing through an "extruder," where it harmlessly folds and crumples—had been shrunk in height and width by approximately an inch.

Internal emails showed that Trinity employees believed this would save them $2 per endcap—about $50,000 a year. Another source alleged that it was also to make it harder to re-use terminals after an accident, forcing local governments to buy replacements.

The result of shrinking the feeder channel was horrifying—it made it more likely for the guardrail to lock up, causing the railing to strike the car or impale it. Multiple people have died or lost their legs upon striking an ET-Plus in the last few years, and litigation revealed that Trinity Industries had video footage of 5 failed crash tests involving the ET-Plus from 2005. The company claims that these crash tests were for a system that never went into production.

Joshua Harman, an inventor familiar with the ET-Plus, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Trinity Industries when he realized the design was changed without notifying the public. The courts found Trinity guilty under the False Claims Act and levied a $663 million judgment against them.

So What Now?

There are still thousands of ET-Plus systems lining U.S. highways. The problem is that local authorities have no way of knowing whether the model they have is the safe, pre-2005 design…or the altered design with a record for horrifying fatalities. Trinity Industries, meanwhile, insists that both models are safe and that the alterations made in 2005 have not affected the performance of the unit.

People who have been injured in accidents involving terminal caps have been suing Trinity Industries in larger and larger numbers since the $663 million verdict in 2015. Trinity has promised to fight each of these claims in court, insisting that they've done nothing wrong and the lawsuits are meritless. Proving negligence will require gathering evidence from your specific case—which is why calling a local car accident lawyer is the best move you can make right now.

Car accident lawyers can hire the accident reconstruction experts you need to understand what caused your accident and how it was affected by the guardrail terminal. If your terminal was likely faulty, then you'll be eligible to hold Trinity Industries accountable.

Find a local personal injury lawyer on our site today—they're waiting to help you get answers.