Safety question sets off troubling alarms

(Bloomington) Herald-Times

Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield said recently that the department is examining hundreds of crash reports to check if a suspect guardrail has been a factor in any of the crashes.

Thus far, he said, no evidence has indicated the type of guardrail in question has malfunctioned in this state.

We trust that even if transportation officials find no failures of the guardrails here, they will give great weight to results of new crash tests ordered by the federal government after problems with the rail surfaced.

If that report shows the guardrails, designed to keep cars or trucks from careening off the pavement, become deadly spears when their ends are hit head-on, Indiana drivers must be made safer by replacement of the faulty rails.

The rails are manufactured by Trinity Industries, based in Dallas, which markets the protection devices throughout the United States. The Dallas Morning News reported recently that the Federal Highway Administration, which has ordered the new tests, estimates the questionable rails have been installed at as many as 200,000 locations across the country.

The problem has been traced to a small design change in 2005 to the rail end that critics say affects its response to a head-on collision,

causing the straight rail to spear through the vehicle rather than the rail end forcing it to curl safely away.

Trinity’s guardrail passed federal safety tests before the change, and the company has said it was a minor adjustment that didn’t require a new round of tests.

A federal jury didn’t agree and ruled Trinity had defrauded the government by not performing new tests when the changes were made. Until the recent verdict, the highway administration held that the change was of no consequence, with its interest revived only after the verdict became a national story. There currently are several additional lawsuits claiming the 2005 redesign made the rails unsafe.

The new tests are slated to begin this month and are being expedited. The results should determine any action by transportation officials here. If they reveal a danger, the rails must be replaced as quickly as possible. A review of accident reports

is not predictive of accidents that might occur in the future.

The current concern illustrates the larger problem facing the world, with recalls of millions of cars and trucks in recent months to repair dangerous and sometimes deadly defects.

As manufacturing has consolidated, unfortunate mistakes magnify. As a result, bad and sometimes dangerous design goes into millions of households across the world. We are ever more dependent on sometimes distant regulators maintaining their vigilance and making the right choices.

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