(BOSTON) — Transportation officials in Massachusetts recently announced the state will halt the use of a widely-used guardrail end terminal while it conducts “additional research,” days after an ABC News investigation looked into allegations that a small design change turned the metal safety structures potentially deadly.
“In light of a recent report raising questions about the performance of a specific guardrail end terminal, MassDOT [Massachusetts Department of Transportation] has taken initial steps to halt the use of that end terminal while the agency conducts additional research,” MassDOT said in an email to ABC News Wednesday.
The report referenced by the MassDOT was conducted by the University of Alabama-Birmingham and examined serious and fatal accidents in Missouri and Ohio. The study, first reported by ABC News, concluded that a re-designed version of a widely used guardrail end terminal “placed motorists at a higher level of risk of both serious injury and fatality” than the original version.
The study was commissioned by the state of Missouri and The Safety Institute, a non-profit advocacy organization.
A MassDOT spokesman told ABC News this means no new ET-Plus model guardrails will be purchased for use on Massachusetts highways, nor will the guardrail be used to replace aging or damaged guardrails, while the investigation is ongoing.
The state agency says “if necessary, [it] will evaluate possible measures to repair or replace these end terminals already in use.”
The ABC News investigation, which aired on 20/20 Sept. 19, reported that in 2005 Trinity Industries, the Texas company that makes the end terminals, changed the design of part of the guardrail end terminal — shrinking a piece of metal from five inches in width to four. An internal company email, obtained by ABC News, showed that an official with the company estimated that the company would save $2 per guardrail with the change — $50,000 a year.
Lawsuits filed against the company allege that small change altered the way the guardrail reacted to being hit from the front. In several graphic cases, the guardrail speared straight through the vehicle — severing motorists’ legs — rather than bending back as designed.
A spokesperson for Trinity Industries told ABC News in an email that the UAB study’s data “was very limited.”
“We are confident that once we have had a chance to meet with the state of Massachusetts and present the facts, we will be added back to the Qualified Products List,” the email says.
In response to ABC News questions for its original report, Trinity said it has a “high degree of confidence in the performance and integrity of the ET-Plus System…” and noted that the FHWA has repeatedly accepted the ET-Plus System for eligibility on the nation’s highways.
Massachusetts is the second state to halt purchasing of the ET-Plus, at least temporarily. Earlier this year, officials from the Nevada Department of Transporation removed the guardrail end terminal from its “Qualified Products List,” meaning it would not purchase them for use on state highways as it reviews the product.
Nevada DOT told ABC News the step was “a procedural measure” after Trinity failed to disclose changes made to the ET-Plus, as is required by the state. Trinity has appealed that decision.
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