WKYT Investigates: Kentucky has hundreds of dangerous guardrails

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) – Travel experts have said there will be a record 41.6 million people on the highway this weekend, but the increase in highway traffic isn’t the only danger on Kentucky roadways.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet estimates that there are hundreds of ET Plus guardrail heads, alleged to be defective, lining the edges of state roadways. But transportation officials say they don’t know where the ET Plus guardrail heads are located.

In October, a ruling by a Texas jury prompted 30 states, including Kentucky, to temporarily ban the installation of the ET Plus. The jury found that the manufacturer, Trinity Highway Projects of Dallas, defrauded the federal government by making design changes to the guardrail, possibly causing it to malfunction.

Trinity was found liable for defrauding the Federal Highway Administration, which didn’t find out about the potentially dangerous change for more than two and a half years.

That federal lawsuit was filed by Josh Harmon, who met with WKYT this week to look at guardrails in Southern Kentucky. During the investigation, Harmon and WKYT’s Miranda Combs passed hundreds of guardrails. Harmon only considered one of those guardrails to be “safe,” meaning it meets the safety standard.

What’s at issue, Harmon said, is that in the mid-2000s Trinity changed the dimensions of the guardrail end treatments from the approved 5-inch model to a 4-inch model.

"The four-inch always fails,” he told WKYT. “I've never found a four-inch to work."

Trinity was recently found guilty of fraud and ordered to pay $175 million, which will be tripled under federal law. But Harmon said the danger is still on the road. Kentucky is among the states that is trying to figure out what to do next. The issue has grabbed headlines and been on newscasts across the country.

"A product recall -- that's what has to happen,” he said. “It's not about the money. A product recall has to happen across the nation."

WKYT traveled with Harmon from London to Corbin. A two-hour search for a five-inch model resulted in just one on Interstate 75 south just before Corbin. The rest, were what Harmon calls the faulty four-inch model.

"What they've done here is created a killer head," Harmon said.

Kentucky Transportation Spokesman Chuck Wolfe said he has been watching developments with the lawsuit. There are hundreds of the ET Plus guardrail heads in Kentucky, but that figure is just a guess, Wolfe said..

Since 2007, the year the transportation cabinet started keeping a database, Wolfe said they have records for 528 new guardrail projects that possibly involve the end treatment in question. "We will have to do an inventory of all our guardrail end treatments,” he said. “To know for sure, you have to pretty much go and eyeball them to see what brand is stamped in or around them."

The federal government recently said Trinity could do further tests on the end treatments. Crash tests are being conducted now in Texas. Wolfe said the state is on hold until they see those results.

"If there is a reason, a real need for replacing all of these parts, then that will have to be done," Wolfe said. "Probably several million dollars, but the secretary has said we will do whatever needs to be done."

Harmon said there's no need to wait for crash tests results. He thinks Trinity is just buying time to avoid paying the price of righting a wrong. Trinity could not be reached for comment.

"They are trying to put icing on a cake and that's not what's happening,” Harmon said. “People are dying."

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