(NEW YORK) — A new series of crash tests are scheduled to start Thursday for a controversial, widely-used guardrail system, as the state of Virginia takes on both the guardrail maker and federal safety officials who have insisted further testing is unnecessary.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) ordered the new crash tests after state officials were unconvinced that tests conducted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) late last year and early this year proved that the guardrail system was safe.
The guardrail maker, Trinity Industries, has gone on the offensive against Virginia, buying ad space at major news outlet websites calling into question both the state officials’ motivations and the tests themselves. In a letter to VDOT officials earlier this month, Trinity demanded to be let in on the details of the planned crash tests.
“In response to the various other demands, assertions and things said in your letter, I need to make the point that Virginia is a sovereign entity, not subject to direction from Trinity,” Richard McGrath, senior assistant attorney general in Virginia, said in response last week.
Later, Virginia and Trinity exchanged another round of contentious letters, this time about who from Trinity would be allowed into the VDOT’s new tests.
The guardrail system, known as the ET-Plus, was the focus of an ABC News investigation that examined claims by accident victims and critics who said the guardrail was quietly altered more than a decade ago to save the company money — and that the alteration made the guardrail more dangerous for American motorists.
Accident victims blamed the modified guardrail for gruesome dismemberments and deaths.
Last October, Trinity was found by a Texas court to have committed fraud for switching out one guardrail design for the other without telling state or federal officials until years later, and in June was ordered to pay more than $600 million in damages and penalties — a decision Trinity has said it plans to appeal.
Trinity has maintained that the guardrails are safe and pointed to the FHWA crash tests late last year and earlier this year, which gave the guardrails a passing grade — though the results of one of the eight tests was called into question after critics say it looked to them like a “clear failure.”
Last week the FHWA released the findings of a joint task force that had examined real-world car crashes involving the ET-Plus as well as several other guardrail models. The task force, made up of FHWA officials, state officials and experts, concluded that while all guardrails examined had “performance limitations” when it came to certain crashes, the ET-Plus was not singled out as uniquely dangerous.
The task force said further testing of the guardrails was unnecessary.
That finding prompted a new series of questions about the relationship between FHWA officials and Trinity — one that Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., once called “too cozy.”
“More than three and a half years since states first raised concerns about ET-Plus guardrails and nearly one year since a jury reached a bombshell half-billion-dollar verdict against the ET-Plus’s manufacturer for fraud, FHWA still inexplicably denies that adequate evidence exists to remove these potentially-dangerous devices from our roads,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “Despite the mounting, irrefutable evidence, FHWA continues to look the other way, an approach that endangers our roads and imperils our drivers.”
In April, ABC News reported a federal criminal investigation had been launched that purportedly is looking at Trinity’s dealings with FHWA officials, according to officials and people familiar with the probe.
The six new crash tests, conducted by VDOT at a testing facility in a remote location in the California desert, are expected to conclude in early October.
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