Questions Raised Over DOT’s Role in Guardrail Failures

Various media outlets are reporting the start of a potentially major investigation into the safety of roadside crash barriers. Safety advocates are claiming a change in design has made the barriers highly dangerous during an accident.

Roadside crash barriers have long been a fixture of our nation’s highways. In many cases, it has been these barriers that have made a difference between life and death during an accident. However, a design change made in 2005 may have transformed some of these barriers from miracles of engineering to deadly weapons. Now, both the manufacturer and the Federal Highway Administration are answering questions about how this could have happened.

Like a “Bayonet”

The issue is with the “rail head” the piece that caps the end of the guard rail. In an accident, it is supposed to slide down the back of the rail, allowing the rail to channel the accident in a controlled fashion.

In 2005, the company that manufactures the rails changed their design. The steel channel behind the rail, down which the rail head can slide, was narrowed from five inches to four inches wide.

According to the New York Times, “Instead of sliding along the rail, helping it curl out of the way of the oncoming vehicle, the rail head can become jammed, some state officials say. In those cases, the long metal guardrail does not get pushed aside — instead, it can become a bayonet that can pierce the vehicle and any person in its way, the state officials say.”

The faulty rail heads are linked to at least five deaths and more than 14 serious injuries.

Regulatory Oversight

That issue alone is obviously deeply troubling. Compounding the issue, however, are questions about the level of oversight that FHA was maintaining.

The manufacturer was supposed to have notified FHA of the design change. It apparently did not do so. Thousands of the defective rail heads were installed nationwide before the change came to light during a patent dispute between the manufacturer and one of its rivals.

The Federal government has sued the manufacturer under the False Claims Act, the trial begins next week. However, questions are being asked about why it took FHA so long to realize that the crash barriers had undergone such a major alteration.

FHA Role

It appears that FHA should have had advanced warning over the issue. Engineers from both Connecticut and South Carolina contacted officials to raise concerns about the performance of the rail heads. The engineer from South Carolina even told FHA that the guard rails were not being made to specification. The agency wrote a letter to the manufacturer seeking additional testing, however, the letter was never sent. At the time, the agency said that it did not have enough evidence of a problem.

Oversight in the Spotlight           

The scandal has arrived at an awkward time for FHA. The wider Department of Transportation community is under increased scrutiny over its commitment to oversight. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has been heavily scrutinized for its failure to catch the now infamous GM ignition fault.

With the court case against the manufacturer starting, it is unclear who will really be on trial: the defendant or FHA.

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