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Guardrails pass most Virginia crash tests

(AP) A highway guardrail system that critics call dangerous has passed most of the safety tests financed by the state of Virginia, according to reports obtained by the Associated Press on Wednesday, but state officials still have concerns about the product and plan to remove it from state roadways.

The chief engineer for Virginia’s Department of Transportation said in a memo to employees that on one of the tests, the Trinity Industries Inc. ET-Plus System performed in a way that “could have serious consequences” for vehicle occupants. The department says that test confirmed its concerns about the product, which it plans to begin removing from Virginia roadways and replacing with different rails by next fall.

The long metal guardrail is supposed to flatten out into a ribbon when hit, absorbing the vehicle’s impact and reducing the chance of death or injury. But a lawsuit filed by Virginia, along with more than a dozen wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against Trinity nationwide, say that that changes made to the device cause it jam, turning it into a deadly spear upon impact.

Virginia spent about $250,000 to perform its own tests of the device this year after deeming the safety tests overseen by the federal government insufficient. Federal officials announced earlier this year that the system had passed all eight crash tests they requested.

The guardrails passed the four standard tests that are used to determine whether the device meets federal guidelines, according to the reports.

But state officials are raising concerns about one of the two “shallow-angle tests,” which shows what happens when a car hits the device at a slight angle. In that test, performed by KARCO Engineering LLC at a facility in California, the truck overturned after hitting the guardrail device.

There was no determination on whether the device passed or failed the two “shallow-angle tests.”

Trinity has called Virginia’s additional tests “questionable and unreliable” and has accused state officials of trying to set it up to fail in order to support its lawsuit against the company. Trinity has been especially critical of the use of the “shallow-angle tests,” which the federal government didn’t require. A Trinity spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who sued Trinity in 2014, says the company defrauded the state by failing to disclose changes made to the ET-Plus units that he and other critics contend made the device more dangerous.

A federal judge in Texas ordered Trinity in June to pay $663 million in damages for failing to tell the federal government about the design changes. Trinity is appealing that decision, which resulted from a lawsuit brought by a Trinity competitor in Virginia on behalf of the government.

Trinity has used newspaper and online ads in Virginia to aggressively defend its product, which it says functions as it’s supposed to when properly installed, maintained and repaired. It claims that the department didn’t properly install the guardrail system for any of the tests and blasted state officials for not allowing it to inspect the testing facility and vehicles.

“We think it’s time for VDOT to stop focusing on litigation and instead spend their money on real roadway safety issues,” Trinity says in a video on its website.

There are an estimated 200,000 ET-Plus units on the roadways across the country, including about 11,000 on Virginia’s roads. But more than 40 other states quit installing the devices after the federal jury found in Oct. 2014 that the company had defrauded the government. After federal officials announced that the design met safety standards in March, the company, which had stopped manufacturing the devices, said it would resume shipments.

— ALANNA DURKIN, Associated Press

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