Are All Guardrails Created Equally?

Highway guardrails are designed and strategically placed along our highways to protect drivers and their passengers by limiting damage in the event of an accident. Tragically, some guardrails may actually be causing further harm in serious car accidents.

Safety experts have challenged the assumption that guardrails increase highway safety by pointing to the number of serious injuries and fatalities involving guardrail impacts and design choices that appear to increase the risk for serious injury. Recent research has focused on the danger posed by the ends of guardrails (called the “terminal ends”), which are intended to absorb the energy from a collision. Different terminal-end designs have been used and some appear to increase the risk of injury.

In fact, in a recent study sponsored by The Safety Institute, researchers found that the ET-Plus guardrail posed significantly more risk of serious injury and death than terminal ends from other manufacturers. In 2005, one of the largest guardrail manufacturers in the country, Trinity Highway Products of Texas, redesigned its ET-Plus highway guardrails. Rather than flattening the guardrail, the new design forms the guardrail into a spear that can pierce and go right through a vehicle. As many as 20 deaths and multiple catastrophic injuries have been linked to the redesign of this guardrail, which is currently in use throughout the country.

This risk was graphically illustrated in January of this year when Jay Traylor’s SUV struck an ET-Plus guardrail. Instead of deflecting the vehicle as intended, the guardrail cut through the SUV amputating both of Traylor’s legs below the knees. Some blame his injuries on the manufacturer’s 2005 decision to narrow the guardrail’s width from five inches to four.

At least two states have decided against using the ET-Plus guardrail in future construction. Other states are considering the issue. As late as June 30, 2014, however, Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman, Steve Faulkner, was quoted by the Columbus Dispatch as validating ET-Plus guardrail’s safety and continued use. At this time, it is unclear whether the Ohio Department of Transportation has reconsidered its stance.

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