(WASHINGTON) — The government on Friday released results of the first set of crash tests it ordered on a controversial highway guardrail system, giving the ET-Plus a “pass” grade in the first four of eight tests conducted this winter in San Antonio – but an upcoming release may not be so clear cut, according to an accident expert.
The popular guardrail system, found on highways across the country, has been blamed for gruesome injuries and deaths after it was modified years ago without the knowledge of federal and state officials. More than half of U.S. states have stopped installing the guardrail, pending the outcome of the tests.
In a statement, the Federal Highway Administration’s Acting Administrator Gregory Nadeau said the crash tests “are not the end of our work to determine the safety of this device,” adding that the agency plans to address other safety questions that have been raised about the embattled highway device.
“We’ve said from day one that, when it came to testing, we weren’t going to do this one task, check a box and be done with it,” Nadeau said.
Trinity Industries of Texas, the manufacturer of the guardrail end terminal, said Friday the results “validate” the company’s “long standing position” that if installed and maintained correctly on the highway, the ET-Plus it will perform as intended. The company says it remains confident in the performance of the ET-Plus.
In total eight tests were conducted by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, where an ABC News producer was present at each of the closed crash tests as a media pool representative. The first four tests were conducted with the end terminals at a height of 27 ¾ inches. The second set was at a height of 31 inches. The results of the last four tests are currently being analyzed and expected to be released in the coming weeks.
But in the wake of what could look like a clean sweep for Trinity’s embattled product, questions are now being raised about the results of the eighth and final test conducted on Jan. 27, which one expert, who says he reviewed photos and videos of the test, is calling a “clear failure.” In helicopter video shot by ABC News affiliate KSAT, the small vehicle can be seen significantly damaged on the driver’s side upon impact. Although the guardrail does not appear to pierce the cabin of the car, the door is clearly crushed inward.
Late Thursday, an expert witness – who testified against Trinity in an earlier Texas federal whistleblower case – filed an affidavit saying “the guardrail buckled and began violently penetrating the occupant compartment.”
The impact, writes civil engineer and accident expert Brian Coon, “not only could have caused disabling injuries, but showed a propensity to penetrate the vehicle and cause devastating injuries” and was a “clear failure” under the guidelines followed for the safe performance of guardrails.
An ABC News 20/20 investigation in September looked into allegations from crash victims that the modified guardrail end terminal could malfunction when struck from the front by their vehicles. Rather than ribboning out and absorbing the impact as designed, the modified, 4-inch guardrails “locked up” and speared straight through the cars, severing the motorists’ limbs in some cases. The ABC News investigation discovered that in a company email, a Trinity Industries employee noted that the modification would save $2 per guardrail – approximately $50,000 per year.
Eight crash tests of the modified, 4-inch ET-Plus, were requested by the Federal Highway Administration late last year after a federal jury in a whistleblower case found Trinity had defrauded the government by not disclosing those earlier changes. The company was ordered to pay $175 million in damages – a figure expected to triple by statutory mandate.
Trinity Industries also announced last year it would suspend sales of the ET-Plus to states while the system was tested and reviewed.
In Friday’s announcement, the company says it will wait until the results of all eight tests have been released before deciding whether or not to resume sales. Trinity says revenue from the ET-Plus last year before it suspended sales was approximately $33 million.
Coon testified in the earlier federal whistleblower case for the plaintiffs, led by Joshua Harman, a one-time competitor of Trinity’s who brought the 5-inch to 4-inch modification issue to light with the government.
Harman told ABC News Friday that all eyes will be on the results of the eighth test.
“If they classify that as a pass then they may as well say the Titanic did not sink.”
Trinity spokesperson Jeff Eller said Friday that as the data from the final test has not been fully analyzed yet, it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment or speculate.
“Guardrail experts know full well you cannot base any crash test outcome solely on visual representation,” Eller said in a statement provided to ABC News. “When the test data is complete, it will be reviewed and released by the Federal Highway Administration.”
Federal Highway Administration has made the crash test video from the first four tests available for viewing on its website, found here.
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