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Manufacturer May Have Put Profits Before Safety

A manufacturer of U.S. highway guardrails heads to court this week over allegations it changed its design about 10 years ago to save on manufacturing costs.

A manufacturer of U.S. highway guardrails heads to court this week over allegations it changed its design about 10 years ago to save on manufacturing costs. The problem rests on the fact that the company purportedly never informed the Federal Highway Administration about the change, resulting in the company improperly accepting federal money since the redesign. While this all may sound like no big deal, the spotlight on this case falls on the guardrail design change that increases the chance of it piercing vehicles — and potentially anyone inside.

According to Bloomberg, Trinity Industries Inc. is set to defend itself at trial for a second time against $1 billion in claims that its guardrail systems lock up and puncture cars on impact. The first trial in July was declared a mistrial partly due to “serious concerns” over company officials’ truthfulness while under oath.

A self-described safety advocate from Swords Creek, Virginia, Joshua Harman, brought about the whistle-blower lawsuit that accuses Trinity of redesigning the end terminals in 2005 in order to save on manufacturing costs. Harman claims that instead of the steel fixture mounted on the end of the system acting as a shock absorber during impact, it reacts more like a giant spear during a crash.

While the company claims to have conducted and passed tests for the redesigned end terminals, Trinity apparently never received approval for the change or alerted Federal agencies to the redesign. In fact, agencies weren’t aware of the change until 2012.

As reported by the New York Times, internal documents show that a senior engineer at the highway administration expressed reservations about the guardrails’ safety before signing off on their continued use two years ago. Agency officials even drafted a letter asking the manufacturer to conduct additional testing, but the letter was never sent.

“There does seem to be a valid question over the field performance,” the senior engineer, Nicholas Artimovich, wrote in an email to his colleagues in February 2012, after an agency engineer based in South Carolina raised questions about the guardrails.

In a separate email to an outside safety expert a month later, Mr. Artimovich wrote that it was “hard to ignore the fatal results.”

Currently, the federal agency continues to allow states to use federal funds to purchase and install the redesigned guardrails. Because of the safety concerns exhibited by different authorities, Missouri, Nevada and Massachusetts have banned further installation or purchase of the guardrails, while other states continue to investigate the situation.

What Do You Think?

Should the company have done more testing before installing it? Is the Federal Highway Administration at fault for not doing more when the problem was indentified? Is this just a baseless attack on the company? Tell us what you think by leaving your comments below. 

Check out this crash test video of the Trinity guardrail end terminal:


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