Lawsuit Questions the Safety of Guardrails

By Kim Smiley

A whistleblower lawsuit claims that tens of thousands of guardrails installed across the US may be unsafe.  The concern is that the specific design of the guardrail in question, the ET-Plus, can jam when hit and puncture cars, potentially causing injury, rather than curling away as intended.

This issue has more questions than answers at this point, but an initial Cause Map can be built to document what is currently known.  A question mark should be added to any cause that is suspected, but has not been proven with evidence.  As more information, both new causes and evidence, becomes available the Cause Map can easily be expanded to incorporate it.

In this example, the primary concern, both from a safety and regulation standpoint, about the guardrails are centered on a design change made in 2005.  The size of the energy-absorbing end terminal was changed from five inches to four.  The modification was apparently made as a cost-saving measure.   The lawsuit alleges that federal authorities were never alerted to the design change so it never received the required review and approval.  It appears that federal authorities were not alerted until a patent case bought up the issue in 2012.

The reduction in the size of the end terminals may have affected how the guardrails function during auto accidents.  The lawsuit claims that five deaths and other injuries from at least 14 auto accidents can be attributed to the new design of guardrails.  The Federal Highway Administration has stated that the guardrails meet crash-test criteria, but three states (Missouri, Nevada and Massachusetts) are taking the concerns seriously enough to ban further installation of the guardrails pending completion of the investigation.

This issue is a classic proverbial can of worms.  Up to a billion dollars could be at stake in the lawsuit and the man who filed the lawsuit could get a significant cut of the payout.  There are potential testing requirement issues that need to be considered if the guardrails are passing crash tests, but causing injuries.  There are concerns over whether the company properly informed the federal government about design changes, which is a particularly sensitive topic following the recent GM ignition switch issues.  All and all, this should be a very interesting topic to follow as it plays out.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.