DALLAS (AP) — Federal officials said Friday that a guardrail system found on many U.S. highways met safety standards in crash tests that followed accusations they have speared cars.
Forty states have stopped installing the guardrails, and Trinity Industries Inc. stopped shipping them after a Texas jury found in October that the company had failed to tell regulators about design changes made in 2005.
Guardrails are designed to crumple and absorb impact, but critics said the cost-cutting design change made it more likely the guardrails would spear cars that crash into either end of the guardrail. The jury verdict in October centered on the company's failure to tell regulators about the changes, not whether the guardrails were safe. Trinity faces several wrongful-death and injury lawsuits.
The Dallas-based company said it would decide soon whether to resume shipping the guardrails after Friday's findings from the Federal Highway Administration. The agency said Trinity's ET-Plus systems passed the last four of eight safety tests. The agency had already announced last month that the guardrails passed the first four tests.
In the tests, the guardrails did not penetrate the cars, although in one case the driver's door was crumpled. The highway agency said an independent safety reviewer judged that the driver in such a wreck would have been unlikely to be seriously injured.
In a letter to state highway officials, a Trinity executive and an official for Texas A&M University, which helped design the ET-Plus, anticipated that the last test would be criticized even though the guardrails passed. In crashes at 60 mph, extensive damage to the outside of vehicles should be expected, they said.
There are an estimated 200,000 ET-Plus units along the nation's roadways. Highway agency officials said their analysis of the guardrails is not finished. Officials from the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials are still looking at other crash data collected involving the guardrails.
"The analysis we are conducting is aimed at providing every possible assurance that this device and devices like it down the road are performing as designed," Federal Highway Administration Deputy Administrator Gregory Nadeau said, adding, "We are going to continue to drill down and provide as much data as we possibly can to give decisions makers, in the states especially, the information they need to render appropriate judgment for this and other road safety hardware."
He said that because of the successful crash tests, the ET-Plus will remain eligible for federal funding.
Some lawmakers have been critical of FHWA's evaluation of the guardrails, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. The Connecticut Democrat accused the Federal Highway Administration of having "an "unacceptable pattern of inadequate oversight" and called the crash tests "sham tests rife with flaws." He said the agency allowed the manufacturer to apply "older, less rigorous testing standards."
However, administration spokesman Neil Gaffney defended the tests, saying the agency used criteria that were the safety standards at the time the guardrails were developed.
The device met the crash test criteria and developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that is followed by individual states.
Texas is among states that had suspended any new installations of the ET-Plus. A Texas Department of Transportation spokesman said Friday that the agency was waiting further analysis by highway officials before deciding what to do next.
The jury in October found that Trinity should to pay at least $175 million for failing to tell regulators about the design change.
Following the verdict, which Trinity said it would appeal, the judge ordered mediation between Trinity and the whistleblower who filed the lawsuit, Virginia guardrail installer Joshua Harman. Talks have not yet produced a settlement. If they fail, the judge could triple the damages.
Associated Press Business Writer David Koenig contributed to this report.