Federal officials will analyze the safety and effectiveness of highway guardrails after a new study found that a widely used guardrail end terminal was linked to excruciating injuries and deaths in several recent accidents. The new study, which was released last week by The Safety Institute, looked at the ET-Plus, a guard rail end terminal manufactured by Trinity Industries. An end terminal is the head of a guardrail, which in some cases can pierce through vehicles in head on collisions rather than absorb the impact.
Researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) found that the newly redesigned ET-Plus guardrail end terminal put motorists at a higher risk for death and injury than a previous version. The study looked at the "real world" performance of the guardrail end terminal, specifically whether it can absorb a head-on impact at 62 miles-per-hour, which is what it is designed to do.
The ET-Plus has passed crash tests and meets federal safety requirements, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Trinity Industries is currently looking at multiple lawsuits stemming from motorists who were killed or lost limbs in accidents involving the ET-Plus. The issue in the lawsuits is a modification Trinity made to the end terminal, reducing a piece of metal by an inch. According to the lawsuits, this slight change turned the guardrails into hazards.
Internal Trinity documents obtained by ABC News reveal Trinity engineers estimated that by trimming a metal section of the end terminal by an inch would save the company $2 for each sold. "That's $50,000 a year and $250,000 in five years" by using the shorter piece of metal.
"These cases show how corporations routinely focus on their bottom line in dealing with engineering issues related to their products," says Katherine Harvey-Lee, a catastrophic injury attorney at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman. "Rarely, if ever, do they put safety at or near the top of their list of considerations - indeed many times it is not even considered at all."
Trinity denies that the change to the terminal had to do with making more money, but Harvey-Lee says that isn't likely. "Sadly, many in the public still think large corporations consider consumer safety a top priority," she says. "But it appears from these documents that Trinity found a cheaper way to produce something that seemed similar and thereby increased their bottom line without considering the human cost of the change. Corporations may talk a lot about safety in their advertising, but internal documents that are usually only seen in litigation after tragedies occur often show that safety considerations play little part in their design and manufacturing decisions."