Guardrails are roadway safety devices that are designed to prevent motor vehicles from leaving the road when a motorist loses control of a vehicle or is forced to take extreme evasive measures. When a vehicle strikes a guardrail, the expectation is that it will prevent the car from continuing off the road and that it will limit or absorb the forces that strike the car.
Unfortunately, many guardrails are poorly designed or constructed. In numerous cases, it’s these safety devices that cause vehicle occupants to suffer serious injuries. In some cases, cars have actually “ridden” the rail, causing the car to roll or be launched back onto the road and into the path of traffic.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) has banned a number of guardrails based on defective design. Unfortunately, a number of these guardrails have not yet been removed from roadways and continue to pose a substantial risk to motorists. These include:
- Blunt End Guardrails – These are rails that do not absorb the forces involved in a collision and do not give way on impact. These rails have been in existence for over 60 years. When a car contacts the upstream end, the rail can penetrate the car’s grill, wheel well or side door and pass through the passenger side, impaling occupants.
- Texas Twist or Turn Down – Banned since 1995, these still exist in various locations around the country. Although recognized as an improvement over the blunt end design because the rail is turned down and twisted to the point where it is anchored to the ground, it has not prevented accidents. When contact is made, a car can ride up the rail and vault or rollover.
- ET-Plus Guardrail – Designed by Trinity Industries, this rail was initially approved by the FHA as a ribbon type rail, an improvement over the W-beam type. Its end terminal had a “feeder chute” that on impact would flatten the rail into a ribbon and deflect it away from an oncoming car.
The company re-designed the rail without first conducting safety trials or seeking FHA approval. It reduced the width of the feeder chute from 5 inches to 4 inches and its height by ½ inch to save costs. On impact, however, a car is more likely to become stuck in the feeder chute and act like a spear, impaling the car and possibly the occupants. Tests on the re-designed rails by the University of Alabama revealed that they were 3 times more likely to cause fatal injuries and 36 times more likely to cause injuries than the earlier, FHA-approved guardrails.
Although tests and experience have conclusively demonstrated that certain designs are flawed and can lead to serious and fatal injuries, some jurisdictions around the country continue to install or replace worn guardrails with those that still retain blunt ends or have bridge rails that can spear oncoming cars.
Liability for Defective Guardrails
Often, in cases like this, a negligent motorist is included in an injury if their conduct caused you to strike a guardrail, but it is the rail itself that may be the proximate cause of the claimant’s injuries.
These claims are directed toward municipalities or states that installed the guardrail. Because of the long-standing warnings against use of guardrails with certain designs, these entities have had sufficient notice of the unreasonably dangerous condition created by these so-called safety devices.
A claim can also be brought against the manufacturer of such guardrails, such as Trinity Industries, in the matter of the ET-Plus guardrail. All of these claims involve principles of product liability and should be handled by an experienced law firm with the resources to handle complex litigation matters.
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