Safety critics are calling on North American transportation authorities to do a more rigorous review of a controversial guardrail system that lines highways across Canada and the U.S.
The ET Plus guardrail system, made by Trinity Industries, has been called, “a killer” by some critics who warn an undisclosed design change can sometimes cause it to act like a spear on impact slicing through cars and amputating legs. There are tens of thousands of the original and modified version of the ET Plus across North America.
READ MORE: Guardrail safety questioned after critics and accident victims raise serious concerns
16×9 wanted to find out where these devices are installed and how many are on Canadian roads. We contacted every provincial and territorial transportation authority and discovered, of the seven provinces that have these devices installed, most could not tell us exactly where their ET Pluses were located and only some could tell us how many they had on the roads.
The Manitoba government told 16×9 they have “several hundred” ET Pluses installed across the province but, “information on the exact placement and origin of each piece of guardrail is not readily available.”
Allegations of a possible product defect were made public in early 2012. After it was discovered that Trinity Industries had made an undisclosed design change to the ET Plus, approximately 40 states suspended installations of the device. The US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) also decided to gather information on how the ET Plus was performing on the roads and conduct a series of crash tests.
FHWA eventually decided the ET Plus performs as designed, though some critics say the review was flawed and “blames design failures on installation challenges and extreme crashes”.
Meanwhile in Ontario and Manitoba, the ET Plus remains on a list of approved products.
Mark Ayton is a senior engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. He says Ontario doesn’t know exactly how many ET Pluses are on roads across the province.
“We don’t have an inventory as to the exact number of all the different systems. There’s [sic] over 30 types of guardrail terminals that we have in the province so we don’t keep a detailed inventory of all those 30 types.”
Ayton told us if there was a serious accident, “it would probably come up through one of these monthly meetings or through one of our contractors and we would go out and investigate it.”
Jeff Eller, spokesperson for Trinity Industries, told 16×9 both the modified and original ET Plus “perform as designed”.
“People get hurt every day”, Eller says. “People get hurt on our guard rails. They get hurt on our competitors’ guardrails. It does not mean the product’s defective.”
Accident investigator Zyg Gorski isn’t surprised Ontario doesn’t keep track of how road side devices are performing in the real world. He’s been driving up and down the roads in Southern Ontario for years documenting hazards he sees and reporting them to transportation officials.
For Gorski, it isn’t enough to investigate the aftermath of deadly accidents. We should be continually observing and documenting the condition of our roads to prevent accidents before they happen.
“All of us are driving on our highways in North America and there are so many opportunities for bad things to happen. We know that when we put something out there on the road whatever it may be, that there can be deadly consequences.”
He says his biggest frustration is there isn’t enough independent data being collected that will allow governments and safety experts to make our roads safer and the consequences of not having this information are deadly.
“The longer we wait in reporting these problems, more people are going to face these [deadly] consequences.”
At the time of 16×9’s interview in August with Mark Ayton, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation had not done a review of how the ET Plus was performing and officials maintained they were not aware of any safety issues. 16×9 continued to follow up and in October officials at the Ministry told us they went back and looked at fatal accidents involving guardrails for the years 2005 through 2012. In an email the Ministry told us, “During this eight year period there were no fatalities involving steel beam energy attenuating terminals including the ET-Plus system. As stated previously, MTO is not aware of any safety performance issues with the Trinity Highway Products ET-Plus system on provincial highways in Ontario”.
16×9 asked for a copy of the review but the Ministry told us, “The review we mentioned did not lead to a physical report.”
16×9’s “Highway Hazard?” airs this Saturday at 7pm.