Virginia officials say thousands of guardrails on state roads are defective and are formulating a plan to replace them. This comes amid safety concerns that the guardrails could impale vehicles if they're hit at a certain angle.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will now be replacing those types of guardrails in some areas, focusing on spots more likely to have severe crashes, such as high-speed highways.
Guardrails are supposed to work by coiling up and absorb impact when drivers crash. However, through its own testing and through actual crashes, VDOT has found that some guardrails -- specifically, units made by Texas-based Trinity Industries -- aren't doing what they are supposed to do if the car hits a guardrail's endcap, also known as an end terminal.
Some of the guardrails didn't coil at all, and instead acted more like spears, going straight through the cars that hit them.
"During a time period of October of 2014 through July of 2015, we were aware of four strokes that pierced through the vehicle and the penetrated the vehicle. Some of those penetrations caused injury," said Marshall Herman of VDOT.
There could be as many as 15,000 Trinity-manufactured guardrail ends across Virginia; there's no word yet on how many of those are in Northern Virginia.
The guardrail system passed most of the crash tests financed by Virginia, but officials are raising concerns about one test, designed to show what happens when the device is hit at an certain angle.
VDOT's chief engineer said in a memo that in that tests, the guardrails performed in a way that "could have serious consequences" for vehicle occupants.
VDOT said it will continue to replace "any damaged modified ET-Plus [guardrails] with VDOT approved products," and will begin replacing existing endcaps on guardrails along roadways "where crashes could be more severe," such as high-speed highways, according to a press release.
The commonwealth will also follow updated standards for new guardrails and terminals on construction projects, including raising guardrail height from 27.75 inches to 31 inches.
However, Trinity argues that its products are safe, and called the state's tests "questionable and unreliable." The company accused Virginia of conducting the tests merely to support a lawsuit against the company.
However, in October 2014, Trinity halted shipments of its ET-Plus guardrails after a Texas jury ordered it to pay at least $175 million for misleading regulators. A whistleblower said the company changed the guardrails' design but didn't inform regulators for several years.
Trinity has said that since it introduced its ET system in 2000, it has met all federal testing standards.
Last year, Virginia had banned the use of Trinity's products after the company missed a deadline to submit plans for additional crash testing. Trinity's request for an extension was denied, the New York Times reported.
"We can't have an unapproved product on our roadways," Herman said at the time.
At least 13 other states have removed the guardrails from their lists of qualified products. The Times reported in 2014 that Virginia would be the first state to remove existing guardrails.