Live 5 Investigates: Thousands of allegedly deadly guardrails on local roads

Published: May. 7, 2015 at 3:00 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 11, 2015 at 9:46 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - South Carolina roads are lined with guardrails blamed for deadly crashes.

On I-26, that includes exits for Ashley Phosphate, Midland Parkway and 17-A among many others.

In late April, the US Department of Justice officially opened an investigation of Texas-based Trinity Industries, the company supplying more than 3,500 them locally.

"Twelve more inches to the right and it would've took me out for sure," Chris Gardner, who survived a wreck with a guardrail, said.

Gardner says he's lucky he walked away after his car ended up impaled on a guardrail, which is exactly what so-called ET-Plus guardrail heads, or terminals are supposed to prevent.

"You think they're there for your safety and I never thought that'd be the most life-threatening thing that would happen in a car accident," Gardner said.

In the past year, at least 10 lawsuits nationwide have claimed a design change by Trinity killed three people and hurt nine others.

This past fall, a jury found Trinity committed fraud by not telling the Federal Highway Administration it was changing the width of its guardrail.

According to the suits, the guardrails are supposed to be five inches wide so that when a car hits it, it collapses like an accordion, but Trinity changed its rail to four inches wide. According to the lawsuit, getting rid of that inch saves the company money but it also means that cars can sometimes be speared or impaled by the rails.

Documents from SCDOT show more than 3,000 ET Plus guardrails have been installed statewide since 2010, but the state has no records of how many are made by Trinity and how many are made by other companies.

SCDOT says most of them are probably Trinity's because they're the cheapest.

Trinity is now appealing the fraud conviction and has stopped supplying its guardrail.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the guardrails passed eight safety tests, but critics say one test where a driver's-side door was smashed in should be counted as a fail.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal says the tests are outdated are aren't tough enough.

"Right now there's really, from my standpoint, not a big safety concern that's out there," Leland Colvin, an engineer for SCDOT said.

When asked if it plans to recall any guardrails, the company responded, "No. The ET Plus has always been and continues to be eligible for reimbursement from the Federal Highway Administration. It has passed all 8 crash tests."

Colvin says the state won't replace its Trinity ET Pluses either.

"Taking those out and installing new ones comes at a cost to the taxpayers," Colvin said.

Colvin says it would be around $10 million but Gardner says it's worth it

"It could be expensive but what's the cost of saving lives you know," Gardner said.

FHWA published all of its crash tests on its website.

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