Rail Roaded: Is a Safety Threat Lurking Alongside Pa. Highways?

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

It’s been a pretty rough autumn for the vehicle safety industry. A few weeks ago, we wrote about the dangerously defective airbags that may be lurking in the vehicles of millions of Americans. Now we’ve learned that another potentially life-threatening hazard, intended to provide safety, has been built into the infrastructure of our road system itself. Nationwide, five deaths and numerous injuries have been blamed on a guardrail system installed along highways across the country, including in Pennsylvania. This system, known as ET-Plus, was developed by Dallas-based Trinity Industries. When a motor vehicle collides with a guardrail, the guardrail is supposed to collapse as it absorbs as much of the impact energy as its structure allows. The more kinetic energy that is absorbed by the guardrail, the less energy remains to be absorbed by the vehicle and its occupants. The principle is similar to the “crumple zones” featured in the internal structure of many automobiles. The plaintiffs suing Trinity Industries claim that the ET-Plus guardrail units, about 200,000 of which are believed to be installed alongside U.S. roads, failed to perform this basic function. Particularly suspect is a portion of each guardrail called the rail head. Located on the ends of each section of guardrail, the rail head is designed to travel with the vehicle as the guardrail collapses under the force of the impact. In doing so, it guides the mass of the guardrail’s long axis away from the oncoming vehicle and prevents the vehicle (and perhaps its occupants) from being impaled on the guardrail.“It would be like a knife going through your car,” Penndot District 11 Executive Dan Cessna recently told KDKA in Pittsburgh. And it seems that some ET-Plus units may have done just that. In October, a Texas jury found that Trinity Industries defrauded the government by implementing a money-saving design change in the ET-Plus in 2005, then failing to notify federal regulators as required by law. More than 30 states have since banned any additional purchases of the ET-Plus. Pennsylvania recently joined those ranks. The state has halted further installations of the ET-Plus, but Cessna said that about 9,500 of the units already have been installed on Pennsylvania’s roadways. Cessna estimated that motorists may be passing by about five ET-Plus guardrail units on any given 10-mile stretch of highway in the state. The state of Virginia has gone so far as to plan the removal of the existing ET-Plus units from its roads, according to The New York Times. The company, meanwhile, has just reached an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration on a battery of tests for the ET-Plus system. In the meantime, Pennsylvania drivers who skid on a patch of interstate highway ice can pray their momentary lack of control doesn’t skewer them on a faulty guardrail like a bug on a pin. Needless to say, if you believe that you or someone you love has suffered guardrail-related injuries in a motor vehicle accident, call our office to discuss the situation.