How Safe are Roadside Guardrails?

A piece of street furniture we see all the time on the road, the guardrail stands constant guard over us as we hurtle down roads and across bridges. They prevent vehicles from hitting roadside obstacles such as signs, culvert inlets and natural outcroppings that appear too close to the road such as trees or rock outcroppings. Guardrails are a constant reminder to remain alert and if we stray off the road, they many times keep us from going down steep embankments, staying upright or veering off into oncoming traffic.

Guardrails function as a system that includes the rails, posts and end terminals or anchors. Each guardrail must be fixed by an anchor either at a bridge or placed in the ground or within an embankment. There are four types of guardrails: cable/wood posts, steel and wood/metal posts, steel box-beam, and concrete barriers (typically installed in the median).

The most common is the galvanized steel W-Beam guardrail which are roll-formed into the shape of a “W.” The steel is either high strength 12-gauge (class A) or 10-gauge (class B). Wooden posts apparently are safer than steel posts and all guardrails are crash tested at the National Crash Analysis Center which determines the safest guardrails for highway use. If involved in a crash, the steel guardrails are designed so that the pieces slide into each other when struck. This telescoping helps absorb the impact and prevents the metal end from skewering the vehicle. Much of the damage though is done when a vehicle hits the anchor.

When transportation engineers build newer roads, they minimize obstacles and limit the amount of guardrail placed as much as possible. Guardrails frequently rank as one of the highest sources of injury and fatality collisions in a fixed-object crash. They are built to deflect and are designed to deform under the load of a crash by safely redirecting a vehicle back onto the road. They are used only when roadside conditions pose a greater threat than the guardrail itself. Unfortunately, guardrails can be a contributing factor in roadside deaths.

In May, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a joint legislative resolution calling for a nationwide recall of a guardrail tied to at least 11 deaths in the US, including four in Tennessee. In November 2016, 17-year-old, Hannah Eimers, from Lenoir City, TN was horrifically killed by an X-Lite guardrail during an auto accident. Soon after the fatal crash, her father Steven Eimers was sent a $3000 bill from the Tennessee Department of Transportation to pay for the X-LITE that killed his daughter. The Tennessee resolution is the first such resolution by a state to urge federal officials to remove all X-Lite guardrail components.

Tennessee, which had the third most X-LITE guardrails of any state, announced last year that it would remove most of the X-LITE components from its roadways, seven percent or roughly 1,800 units of all guardrails in the state. According to the Federal Highway Administration, The X-LITE makes up slightly more than one percent of all guardrails nationwide. Missouri also announced last year, the state would replace all of its X-LITE guardrails which is 1.3 percent of the 30,000 guardrails in the state.

The joint Tennessee House resolution also called on Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to rescind the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) reimbursement eligibility letter for the product which allows states that use the product to receive federal infrastructure funds. The letter is not necessary for the product to be used however.

A number of lawsuits have been filed on behalf of X-LITE victims. Basically, the suits say that the ends or the anchors of the X-LITE do not telescope upon impact and instead skewer the vehicle and generally the victims.

Last year, the FHWA asked states to submit data on the X-LITE system since no one has been keeping records on guardrails involved in crashes and how they performed. “The information gained from the handful of states who use X-LITE components has offered no specific justification for removing its federal funding eligibility,” said FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox in January 2018.

The guardrail manufacturer, Lindsay Corporation maintains that its “inability to singly prevent every tragedy does not indicate a flaw or defect.”

This is not the first time guardrails have been accused of not being as safe as the crash tests indicate.

Guardrails do keep many people safe on the road as a reminder to drive safely so let’s keep that in mind the next time you see one standing vigilant on the side of the road.

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