I-Team questions ET-Plus guardrail crash tests

Dan Noyes Image
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
I-Team questions ET-Plus guardrail crash tests
The federal government will begin crash testing a controversial guardrail system called the ET-Plus.

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (KGO) -- Wednesday morning, the federal government begins a series of crash tests of a controversial guardrail system, blamed for injuries and deaths across the country. But, the ABC7 News I-Team has uncovered new information that may call into question the results of those tests.

Caltrans is playing a major role in the ET-Plus crash tests, sending eight of the units from its Sacramento warehouse to be tested. But, are they the same size as those installed around the state and the country? And if not, will those crash tests be valid?

The federal government ordered the new crash tests after a Texas jury found Trinity Industries defrauded safety regulators, by failing to disclose a change in its ET-Plus end terminals, shrinking the width from five inches to four.

Steven Lawrence was one of the plaintiff's attorneys in that case, and tells the I-Team, "They changed it, we know they changed it to save money, save roughly $2 per terminal, but also that they had another side effect there. The terminals were no longer reusable."

And that would mean more sales for the company. Lawrence says the one-inch change also caused the ET-Plus to fail. During that trial, Trinity was forced to release crash test videos from 2005 and 2006. Instead of gradually slowing the car, the end terminal locked up, jolting the car to a stop or making it roll over. That appears to be what happened to 24-year-old Darryl Blackmon, who died last month after hitting an ET-Plus near the Mill Valley exit on 101.

"Why are these things still out there?" asks Lawrence. "The company knows they don't work. They knew it didn't work when they put it out on the road and started selling it."

Caltrans is supplying ET-Plus end terminals for each of the eight crash tests, from its stock at a Sacramento warehouse. But a Caltrans spokesman tells me they didn't measure the units before shipping them off to the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, and Trinity didn't answer our emails and phone calls asking for the dimensions. So on Tuesday, Dan Noyes measured the new ET-Plus Caltrans installed after the Blackmon crash. He found it is "15 1/8" tall, 37 1/4 long."

Those dimensions don't match what the federal government approved -- 14 7/8 inches tall and 37 long. Steven Lawrence says an ET-Plus that is a quarter inch taller and longer may actually perform better in crash tests, and would not accurately reflect the performance of all those smaller ET-Pluses on the road.

"What are they testing?" asks Lawrence. "Are they testing what they made in 2005, 2006? Are they testing what they are making now? Are they testing just whatever they want to test?"

St. Sen Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, tells the I-Team, "They got to test the old ones because they're still out there."

DeSaulnier is headed to Congress next month. After seeing the I-Team reports about the ET-Plus, he wrote letters to federal highway officials and to Caltrans. He's asking how many five-inch and four-inch ET-Pluses have they installed and if they're found to be unsafe, how do they plan to address the safety problem, in what time frame, and at what cost. And finally, he asks if Trinity, the federal government, or if state taxpayers be responsible for the costs.

DeSaulnier says, "People lost their lives because of this. We're really going to have to go back and look at sort of a root cause of how this all happened."

Noyes asked to attend Wednesday's crash test, as did about a dozen other reporters from across the country. Trinity at first flat out refused, but changed their minds on Monday, allowing a pool reporter from ABC News to watch. We'll let you know how the first test goes and report back.

Read both letters here:

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier guardrail letter to the Federal Highway Administration

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier guardrail letter to Caltrans