Guardrails across the country to be studied for effectiveness this summer

BALTIMORE - Guardrails that you pass everyday are now on the radar of transportation officials across the country. It all boils down to end terminals and looking into whether they're performing the way they're designed to in crashes.

"This is the 5-inch channel; the width," said Joshua Harman, pointing to a guardrail lining the highway.

Harman has worked for 20 years maintaining and repairing the rails. Over the past several years, he's noticed more deadly crashes involving end terminals.

"People are dying at an alarming rate. And if something isn't done, there will be more and more and more," Harman said.

Harman said the crashes are a result of a slight size change. He says the original 5-inch channel allows enough room for the guardrail to pigtail out as designed, but some of the new four inch designs allow no room to give and can impale cars.

"They've got to feed down and go through this head. If they lower that exit gate to 1 inch, those splice bolts will never make it through it," Harman said.

It's a change you can't see just by driving down the road.

"This one here is deadly. This one here, I've seen it completely collapse. I've seen it impale vehicles," said Harman.

It's a change Harman calls deadly.

A Scripps investigation led by WPTV in West Palm Beach found at least eight lawsuits or Attorney General complaints against Dallas-based company Trinity Highway Products, claiming a small alteration to the device at the beginning of the guardrail, the end terminal or guardrail head, caused four deaths and nine injuries.

Earlier this year, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials approved an in-service review of guardrail terminals. According to AASHTO, the roughly $600,000 study is one of 50 research projects scheduled for fiscal year 2014.

It will look at all end terminals in use, not singling out a specific company or design. Instead, it'll check how they each function in real world crashes.

"When I started investigating it, started pulling tape measures and started actually looking at every one that worked and tried to compare them. It became very apparent that the five inch was working, the four inch was not," Harman said.

For Harman, it's a step in the right direction. For the past three years, he's traveled across the country talking to crash victims and their families and spreading the word. "A lot of them think that they were blessed to survive, some of the victims that have lost a leg or mangled up, not realizing that they should've went home with a crick in their neck."

Trinity Industries released a statement to our sister station saying in part that the guardrails in question continue to be accepted by the Federal Highway Administration for U.S. highways, and they're confident in the safety and performance of their guardrails.

Tony Dorsey, the Media Relations Manager with AASHTO, tells me the study will be taking place this summer. So far, they've identified a contractor and are now in the negotiation stages. They're still looking into how the study will be conducted, whether it's in a lab or out in the real world.

Trinity's statement to our sister station goes on to say, "The false and misleading allegations being made by Mr. Harman were reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration. The FHWA reaffirmed its acceptance of the ET Plus system in October 2012 and its eligibility for use on the national highway system."