2 Investigates: Nearly 700 suspended guardrails still on Bay Area roads

Hundreds of controversial guardrail fixtures suspended in California are still installed on Bay Area highways, with no plans to remove them, according to Caltrans.

The ET-Plus guardrail end terminal, made by Dallas-based Trinity Industries, has been at the center of a nationwide controversy for years questioning the model’s safety.

2 Investigates has now learned the exact locations of 697 ET-Plus terminals that are still in use on Bay Area highways, according to a list compiled by Caltrans in December 2014 recently released to KTVU.

INTERACTIVE MAP: ET-PLUS GUARDRAILS ON BAY AREA HIGHWAYS

Mobile app users can view the map here: ET-Plus Guardrail Terminal Locations 

One of those ET-Plus guardrail systems was installed on Highway 101 in Marin the night that Darryl Blackmon, 24, fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed into it.

According to the CHP report, early on the morning of November 1, 2014, Blackmon veered off the road and “collided with the metal guardrail” before hitting a sign and chain link fence, sending the car airborne. Blackmon’s car eventually hit a metal pole, killing him.

The CHP’s investigation does not blame the guardrail directly for Blackmon’s death, but his mother Florence Blackmon believes it contributed to the severity of the crash. She’s filed a legal claim against Caltrans, a precursor to a civil lawsuit.

“You know, he wasn’t taken out by gun violence,” Blackmon said. “He was taken out by something on the highway!”

Blackmon’s claim accuses Caltrans of negligence, stating that “Caltrans was aware of prior incidents involving ET-Plus. Caltrans failed to warn the public of the dangerous conditions of the ET-Plus.”

It goes after Trinity as well, saying “This ET-Plus was defective as manufactured and did not function as designed upon impact with decedent’s vehicle, but, instead, locked up and lead to Decedent’s death.”

Joshua Harman, the man who brought the controversy over the ET-Plus into the national spotlight, agrees that Blackmon may have a case. Harman says he was working as a competitor installing guardrails in Virginia in 2011 when he noticed a small design change to the ET-plus model, and he believes that change was responsible for what he calls pattern of failures and devastating crashes.

Harman filed a federal lawsuit against Trinity, accusing the company of defrauding taxpayers for failing to disclose those design changes to the federal government. Last year, a court agreed and ordered the company to pay a $663 million fine. Trinity is appealing and points out that no court has ever ruled that its product is defective.

2 Investigates visited Darryl Blackmon’s crash site with Harmon, who insists the ET-Plus end terminal didn’t perform properly on that deadly night. Harman said he believes the ET-Plus end terminal should have stopped Blackmon’s car, but instead may have pushed the vehicle off course, sending the car into the metal pole.

Trinity’s spokesman Jeff Eller wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Blackmon’s accident, citing the pending litigation. But he did say that “it is wholly inaccurate to say that any end terminal system is deadly until you look at specific accidents and how they occurred.”

Still, just a few weeks after Blackmon’s death, California announced a moratorium on ordering or installing any new ET-Plus systems “until further notice.”

“Out of an abundance of caution, we put a moratorium on the use of that product,” said Caltrans Traffic Operations Division Chief Tom Hallenbeck. When asked whether Caltrans believes the ET-Plus system is safe, Hallenbeck said “Right now, we don’t have any reason to believe they’re not.”

Caltrans pointed 2 Investigates to a review of 284 accidents over five years involving the ET-Plus. According to that report, 99 percent of those crashes were found to have no problem with the guardrail system’s performance. But in three cases, investigators found that the guardrail penetrated the cars, causing injuries.

The state also cited crash tests performed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) last year on the four-inch ET-Plus model, which passed.

2 Investigates reviewed those crash test videos with Harman, who wasn’t convinced the federal government should have given Trinity a pass on every result. The videos show some test vehicles slow to a stop after hitting the end terminal, which is how Harman says they are supposed to perform. But other videos show the test vehicle hit the metal end terminal and turn to side, spin off course, or bend the metal so that the guardrail collides with the side of the car.

FHWA CRASH TEST VIDEOS: Mobile users click here

Trinity says the FHWA tests show no threat to the driver and deserved the passing grades. “Trinity doesn’t set the test standard,” said Eller. “If you look closely at the test, it did not pierce the driver,” he added, referencing a video that appears to show the guardrail bend back and protrude into the side of the car.

Trinity also points out that two independent engineers confirmed that the system passed all crash tests.  “The ET-Plus when you put it in properly and you maintain it properly performs as designed,” said Eller.

In the meantime, dozens of states, including California, have ceased any new installations of the ET-Plus model. Virginia has even gone as far as performing its own safety tests and removing Trinity’s systems from that state’s highways. Virginia’s Attorney General also announced legal action against Trinity for selling the state “unapproved, improperly tested, and potentially dangerous pieces of highway guardrail equipment.”

Here in California, Florence Blackmon wants Caltrans to take similar action and remove all ET-Plus guardrail systems from the roads. “They need to pull every last one,” Blackmon said, calling Caltrans' delay “straight up negligence.”

Caltrans says the moratorium on new installations will remain in place until their engineers conduct their own analysis and review the federal crash test data to make a final decision about whether the ET-Plus is safe.

“We haven’t seen evidence that they don’t perform as expected. So, there’s no reason at this time to remove them,” said Hallenbeck. “I don’t think I’m being negligent.”

 

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