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Are these guardrails safe? A flawed government investigation into Trinity Industries

Imagine you’re driving along an Oregon highway, headed home after a long day. It’s getting dark outside, and a light rain is falling.  

In your rearview mirror, you see the lights of a truck in the next lane swerve … then you feel the sharp impact against the side of your car.

The force of the impact makes your tires skid. You veer to the side and strike the end of a guardrail.

What happens to you in this scenario? Do you walk away? Does the guardrail severe your legs?

It depends on the guardrail end.

Guardrails are meant to keep vehicles on the road, and lessen the impact of collisions just like the crash described above.

Picture a guardrail. They are long and narrow, with flat plates at the end. When a vehicle strikes that guardrail end, the guardrail is supposed to curl back and absorb the impact.

If it doesn’t work, that guardrail is a giant spear piercing your car.

One guardrail company tried to save a few bucks by making the ends of those guardrails smaller— 4” instead of 5”. It sounds small, but it changed the structural integrity of the guardrail, leading to many serious injuries and deaths.

They didn’t test the change. And they didn’t tell the government about the change.

That company, Trinity Industries, Inc., was fined $575 million in a federal whistleblower lawsuit last year. The jury found that the company defrauded the government by not sharing safety information about their guardrails.

The lawsuit forced a federal investigation by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Trinity had to conduct new safety tests of the new guardrail ends.

“Sham tests rife with flaws” find guardrails are safe

Last month, the crash tests conducted on the 4” guardrail ends were released. Guardrails had to pass eight crash tests to be considered safe. The FHWA analyzed the results, and said the guardrails passed all of the tests.

ABC News filmed the car crash tests from overhead after reporters were denied access. By all accounts, the first seven tests showed the guardrails to be safe.

The eighth test showed the guardrail endplate jamming, turning the guardrail into a car spear.

An FHWA statement said the likelihood of injury from this crash was .03% … so the guardrail ends passed the safety test.

The FHWA has disregarded safety “after allowing the manufacturer to conduct sham tests rife with flaws,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal. A group of Senators has requested a Government Accountability Office review of these tests. They say the tests were improper, standards were clearly outdated, and the whole operation calls into question the FHWA’s handling of the Trinity guardrail investigation.

Meanwhile, an independent study done by universities found that Trinity’s 4″ guardrail end was nearly 4 times as likely to be involved in a fatal crash as the 5″ end.

As of now, 35 states including Oregon, Washington and California, have suspended the purchase of new Trinity guardrails pending this federal investigation.

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