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Senators want federal agency investigated amid guardrail concerns

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Six U.S. Senators want the Federal Highway Administration investigated amid growing concerns about the agency and what the letter describes as “troubling developments” with a widely criticized guardrail system.

Lawsuits allege that a design change in the ET-Plus guardrail system causes it to malfunction and has led to deaths and losses of limbs among drivers in several states. Last fall, a Texas jury found the guardrail’s manufacturer, Trinity Industries, failed to disclose a design change to the Federal Highway Administration. In turn, a guardrail competitor and whistleblower, Joshua Harman, was awarded a $525 million verdict.

As a result of that verdict, Trinity halted the distribution of the guardrails to all 50 state. The Federal Highway Administration then approved a series of crash tests meant to determine whether the guardrails are safe for America’s highways and interstates.

The results of the first four crash tests indicated that the guardrails passed, but results for the remaining four tests have not been publicized.

In a letter sent to the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D – New York, and five other Senators noted “the questionable” safety of certain roadside devices which the FHWA approved and provided grants to states for widespread utilization of these devices. The letter goes on requested the Comptroller and GAO conduct an investigation to address seven areas of concern.

“In recent months, we have witnessed a host of troubling developments that call into question the safety of certain roadside devices known as highway guardrail end terminals,” the letter states. “We are committed to looking closely at this issue… we feel a particular responsibility to ensure that a strong and effective oversight exists. The developments over the past several months raise questions about the effectiveness of the current framework for evaluating the reliability and integrity of roadside hardware products, including guardrail end treatments.”

The letter goes on to identify seven areas they would like the GAO to investigate, including: the role the agency actually plays in ensuring safety and sufficiency of roadside hardware; the regulatory process for developing standards; the role the FHWA and others play in developing safety standards; mechanisms in place to mitigate conflict of interest among others.

In a news release that was attached to a draft of the letter, Sen. Blumenthal’s office writes: “controversial testing of FHWA-approved ET-Plus guardrail end terminals recently took place in Texas and a video of the eighth and final test has raised considerable concern by members of Congress and their constituents.”

Among the other U.S. Senators co-signing the letter include, Edward Markey, Sheldon Whitehouse, Cory Booker, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

In response to questions from I-Team 8, a FHWA spokewoman wrote:

“We welcome the interest of Members of Congress and the GAO review of the process for, and the FHWA’s role in, determining whether roadside safety devices meet the safety criteria adopted by AASHTO and followed by state DOTs.  We look forward to sharing the extensive research and analysis FHWA has conducted surrounding this process. “

At least 32 states have banned the ET-Plus guardrail systems. Indiana, which has more than 4,000 ET-Plus units, has not banned them. But Will Wingfield, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Transportation, has said previously that there is a “net effect” of a ban given that they are no longer being distributed.