WIS Investigates: Thousands of 'faulty' guardrails dot SC's highways

Published: Feb. 2, 2015 at 8:31 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 12, 2015 at 8:58 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A WIS investigation reveals that there are thousands of guardrail terminals, as they're called, on Midlands highways, but state transportation officials say they can't tell which ones come from a company accused of cutting corners and making dangers on the highway worse.

Federal investigators are promising results soon after a new round of tests to see if a common part of highway guardrails is safe or causes deadly accidents.

WIS looked into the furor over whether it's time to take action and whether your drive home is safe.

Chris Gardner made it through tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but just barely survived a 2013 wreck in Irmo with some cuts and bruises when he hit a guardrail which harpooned his car.

"Maybe, uh, 12 more inches to the right, and it would have taken me out for sure," Gardner said. "If I'd been driving with my arm on the console, it would have took it off."

The guardrails on the stretch of Dutch Fork Road where Gardner's accident happened feature ET-Plus end pieces, known as terminals, made by national guardrail provider Trinity Highway. The company has come under fire for similar incidents across the country, in which vehicles were impaled on guardrails, sometimes with tragic results.

In the fall, a federal court ruled Trinity committed fraud by not telling the Federal Highway Administration it changed the dimensions of the terminals. The company says it's innocent and it's appealing.

In a crash, the ET-Plus terminal is supposed to feed the guardrail through a guide channel curling it away. But sometimes that doesn't happen.

"I know that the fatalities are happening," Joshua Harman, who sued Trinity, said. "I know that they're in the hundreds per year."

Harman said he knows why. It was his whistleblower lawsuit that brought the fraud verdict against Trinity, and he says the changes to the terminals turned them into killers. Most easy to see, the narrowing of those guide channels from the Highway Administration's approved 5 inches to 4 inches.

In October, a study at the University of Alabama blamed the ET-Plus terminals for a wildly disproportionate share of highway deaths.

"This is the difference between life and death," Harman said.

The terminals are plentiful on Midlands highways. During WIS' drive on one afternoon, five ET-Plus models were spotted in a matter of minutes.

"Since January of 2010, we've installed over 5,000 end terminals," SCDOT chief engineer of operations Leland Colvin said.

SCDOT administrators say they simply don't know how many of those terminals now on the road are Trinity ETs. Documents obtained by WIS Investigates reveal thousands of the terminals, but there's no information about what kind they are.

WIS' quick survey of area ET guardrail terminals revealed nothing but those with the 4-inch wide guide channels.

"We were very proactive in taking those guardrails out of commission as far as any new installations," Colvin said.

SCDOT has suspended installations of any new Trinity ET Terminals, but the road ahead looks twisted and complicated.

In these highway horror stories, Trinity says the problem could be variables like the angle at which a vehicle hits, its speed, even the state's installation of the terminal.

A new series of independent crash tests just wrapped up last week in Texas, and the Highway Administration preliminarily reports the terminals performed "as expected."

Meanwhile, a new outside review commissioned by the Administration last month found that University of Alabama report is "fundamentally flawed" and its conclusions "basically invalid."

"The injuries, the loss of lives, there's no question that I had to do what I had to do," Harman said.

And it turns out Harman's a little more than a whistleblower. He's also a business competitor of Trinity, and in 2011, Trinity successfully sued Harman's company SPIG Industry for making its own version of Trinity's ET guardrail terminals.

SCDOT reps say they have had informal conversations with their contractors about how many of the terminals are Trinity ETs, and they say informally they've concluded it's most of them, which raises some intimidating numbers."

"The install costs range, from about $1,600 to about $2,200 per location," Colvin said. "Do that over 5,000, potentially 5,000 locations, and it starts adding up very quickly."

Gardner says that's an expensive price, but it comes at the cost of saving lives.

At the scene of Gardner's accident, the guardrail has long since been repaired and the terminal replaced with a new one. That new terminal is 4 inches.

But Colvin says drivers are certainly save on our roadways.

"You think they're there for your safety, to protect you," Gardner said. "But it almost took me out."

Just last Tuesday, the Federal Highway Administration did the last of eight new crash tests of the new 4-inch version of the ET-Plus terminal. The agency says it should deliver its findings on the tests in the next couple of weeks.

SCDOT says that's when it will start making its plans on whether to consider changing the terminals or at least figuring where all of them are.

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