Why Alabama Needs a Guardrail Redesign

Posted in Car Accidents on December 16, 2016.

We rely on a variety of mechanisms to keep us safe on the road: we buckle our seatbelts, turn on our airbags, and limit distractions. Car companies continually innovate to make driving safer, from incorporating voice technology to keep our hands on the wheel to testing and improving safety features with each new model year.

While automakers work to make us safer in our vehicles, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to our nation’s roadways. Guardrails and barriers are rarely replaced, let alone redesigned to be more effective. Like all government projects, guardrail technology is stymied by budget constraints, but officials should make redesigning roadway safety features a priority. It may not seem like a top priority, but a proper guardrail system just might save your life. Driver safety should always be a concern, especially with Alabama’s fatality rate from car accidents already double the national average.

The Problem With Current Guardrails

Guardrails exist to save lives. Their sole purpose is to protect motorists from roadside dangers such as trees, embankments, or other hazards. However, certain types of current guard rails fail to live up to this standard. A guardrail is comprised of two parts: first, there is a rail itself, which keep cars on the road. Second, there is an end cap, which is meant to collapse if a motorist hits it, cushioning the impact. Unfortunately, many of these end caps are defective. End caps have been known to fail, and instead of collapsing, it cuts through the car – even into the seats and floor. The company who makes the end cap, Trinity Industries, faces at least 40 lawsuits in Texas totaling $663 million over the defective design of guardrail endcaps.

To investigate the nature of these endcaps, The Safety Institute, in conjunction with the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, funded at study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the hopes of comparing the faulty endcaps with similar models. The ET-Plus, the defective model, was nearly four times more likely to produce a fatality than Trinity Industries previous model endcap, the ET-2000. Their analysis was based on eight years of data for death and injury crashes in Missouri and Ohio.

Clearly, the current guardrail design is less effective in preventing death and injury. What, though, can we do about it?

Do New Guardrail Recommendations Go Far Enough?

A recent publication by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration found that standard guardrails did not adequately protect motorists on the road. Specifically, the 27-inch minimum installation height did not meet safety criteria. As a result, the government is requiring that all guardrails on National Highway System Roads be raised to 27 ¾ inches, at minimum. However, they recommend that all NHS guardrails be raised to 31 inches.

These new guidelines are meant to protect citizens and effectively cushion cars in the event of an accident. Unfortunately, replacing all guardrails in the system will take time. Additionally, lawsuits regarding the ET-Plus endcap are still pending. Until these matters are fully resolved, the guardrail system on our nation’s highways won’t have optimal safety features.

What Can I Do About It?

Motorists can’t do much to hasten the implementation of new guardrail systems on the road, but they can take steps to prevent accidents. To reduce your risk of injury:

  • Take your time. Don’t travel faster than posted speed limits. Allow extra time to commute in inclement weather.
  • Remove distractions. Stow your phone out of reach and resist the urge to check it. Look up directions to your destination before leaving the house.
  • Drive defensively. Always be aware of your surroundings. Check your blind spot before merging, and follow all applicable traffic laws.
  • Stay alert. This winter weather season, roads may become slick and harder to navigate. Take extra precautions before hitting the road.
  • If you’re in a car accident, follow our guidelines: Car Accident Checklist for Alabama