CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The Ohio Department of Transportation has announced they will no longer buy guardrail terminals that are blamed for thousands of deaths and injuries to drivers across the nation who crashed into them. The decision comes amid a FOX19 investigation into the state's reluctance to rid the state of the devices.
The guardrail end terminals--called the ET-Plus—are manufactured by Trinity Highway Products, LLC, a Texas-based corporation. The terminals are designed to save lives by absorbing crash forces when vehicles hit the end of a guardrail. The ET-Plus is designed to slide down a guardrail allowing your car to ride along the rail until it comes to a stop.
Trinity Industries designed the product to prevent guardrail impalements along high-speed highways around the country.
But on Oct. 20, a federal grand jury in Texas found Trinity Industries and Trinity Highway Products defrauded the federal government after evidence at trial showed the company secretly changed the ET-Plus design a few years ago.
The results of those changes, some say, are death and destruction.
ODOT: 'NO INDICATION THESE DEVICES ARE UNSAFE'
"We have no indication these devices are unsafe." That was the Ohio Transportation Department's position on Oct. 29 when FOX19 requested an interview with agency director, Jerry Wray. The quote came from Steve Faulkner, the agency's press secretary. Faulkner declined multiple requests to interview director Wray on the record regarding his agency's decision to continue to allow the ET-Plus on the state's highways.
On Oct. 17, FOX19 sent Faulkner an Open Records Request, asking the agency to provide the number of ET-Plus devices across the state, as well as where they're installed. In an email response on Oct. 24, Faulkner responded, "the information does not exist."
Faulkner could only provide a list of approved end terminals in use along Ohio's highways.
In a follow up request, Faulkner told FOX19 the best guess ODOT has as to the number of the ET-Plus devices in use is "about a third" of the state's 23,000 guardrail heads are the ET-Plus.
On Oct. 29, Faulkner again denied multiple requests from FOX19 to interview director Wray. In the phone call, Faulkner again reaffirmed his agency's position on the use of the ET-Plus, telling us there were no plans to stop using the devices.
We informed Faulkner we'd pursue an interview with Wray to have him explain his agency's position, despite Faulkner's attempts to deny access to the ODOT director.
Tuesday, Faulkner issued an official press release, informing the media of ODOT's plans to "suspend" new purchases of the ET-Plus while the Federal Highway Administration figures out what to do with the devices.
VICTIMS OF GUARDRAIL FAILURES
On a cold, rainy December day in Bristol, Tenn. paramedic Sabrena Carrier was on her way to work when she ran off the road and hit a guardrail. The rail's end terminal malfunctioned, snapped off and sent the guardrails through Carrier's truck and through the 38-year-old paramedic.
Kevin Marsh worked worked with Carrier for years. He was also one on pf the men who worked to save her life.
"At the time she was talking to me and she said that she was hurt and I said 'I realize that...we're going to take great care of you because we're here,'" Marsh said.
Rescue crews rushed Carrier to the hospital. A section of the guardrail was still in her. She died in surgery.
The state of Tennessee replaced the end terminal she hit with another just like the one her family's attorney says killed her.
Guardrails are not supposed to impale cars.
A video from a crash test in Texas shows what's supposed to happen when you hit a guardrail: the end terminal slides down the rail, feeding the guardrail out to the side and away from the vehicle.
That's not what happened in Sabrena Carrier's crash and thousands like it across the country.
One year ago Cleveland rescue crews rushed to a crash after a guardrail impaled driver Amy Vitelli's SUV.
"I remember losing control of the car and I remember seeing a guardrail in front of me and knowing it'll be fine, I've seen hundreds of people get into accidents, it's a guardrail, I'll be fine," Vitelli said.
But the end terminal snapped off and nearly 20 feet of guardrail rammed through her car.
Vitelli was in critical condition: a broken femur, broken arm, broken ribs, internal injuries. Doctors told her she was millimeters from death.
"I talked to my doctor and I said, 'you know, I was in a pretty bad accident. I would have broken my leg anyway right?'" Vitelli remembers.
But, she says, the doctor told her all of her injuries were sustained because the guardrail came through the car.
Doctors weren't sure whether Vitelli would ever walk again. Now, she's suing the end terminal maker after her attorney says they found the guardrail head malfunctioned. It was a head her attorneys say was built to specifications never approved for use by the Federal Highway Administration.
"There are so many things that I want to be able to do, I should be able to do, I was able to do before and I can't," Vitelli said. "And sometimes I feel like I let my family down because I can't keep up with them."
Carrier's family is suing, too, as they continue to search for answers.
It's the same thing those who knew her are doing too.
"We debriefed and we cried and we just didn't understand it, a lot of it, and it was like how did this happen?" said Marsh. "We did everything that I think we could have done. There is absolutely nothing more that we could have done different."
WHISTLEBLOWER VISITS CINCINNATI
Joshua Harman, a small businessman, just won a federal whistleblower suit against Trinity after a federal grand jury agreed with him that the company defrauded the government by never revealing the changes it made to its guardrail heads in 2005.
Harman discovered the secret changes in 2011 after he noticed deaths and serious injuries from failing guardrail heads all happened with Trinity Highway Products' ET-Plus guardrail heads.
"The results of these accidents...they're horrific," Harman said. "The circumstances these families are going through, the injuries, the loss of lives, there's no questions. I had to do what I had to do."
The most obvious change in the heads was that the beams went from an approved 5-inch design to an unapproved 4-inch design. And Harman says that change significantly weakened the device.
Court records show the design change was made at Trinity's plant 31 in Girard, Ohio. It was inside that plant that the first end terminals we made and built that Harman says killed and injured more than 1,000 people across the country.
"There as no question what was happening," Harman said. "A total misrepresentation, a farce that resulted in people's lives lost and limbs lost...Lives shattered and families destroyed."
Want to know where these guardrails are located throughout the Tri-State? That part of the investigation airs Wednesday on FOX19 at 10 p.m.