ATLANTA - UPDATE: On the same day Channel 2 Action News revealed two deaths in Georgia related to the ET-Plus guardrail, the Georgia Department of Transportation says it will no longer install the product until further crash testing is approved. Watch Channel 2 Action News at 5 for updates on this developing story from investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.
Governor Nathan Deal's office told Channel 2 Action News it called GDOT to express concerns after being made aware of Fleischer's story late Wednesday.
New GDOT statement:
After carefully monitoring the information provided from FHWA, GDOT felt that it was best to issue a moratorium on the ET-Plus model being used for all new installations on active projects and maintenance activities until the FHWA mandated testing is completed.
As of Thursday, 30 states are confirmed to have removed the ET-Plus from their approved purchase list, including: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation has uncovered two deadly crashes right here in Georgia involving a type of guardrail linked to deaths around the country.
Twenty-four other states have already pulled the ET-Plus guardrail end from their approved products list, meaning those states will no longer purchase them, however Georgia's Department of Transportation Commissioner told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer he sees no problem with the product.
"Today, there's no documentation that these systems are failing," said Commissioner Keith Golden.
He acknowledged his department does not keep records of how many ET-Plus guardrail ends are in use on Georgia's road, where they are located, or whether they've been involved in deadly crashes.
"My son meant the world to me," Jeffrey Warford Sr. told Fleischer. "It's just not an easy thing because every day you think about it."
Warford's son, Jeff Warford Jr., was a passenger in his friend's Crown Victoria when it hit the end of a guardrail on Interstate 285 in Atlanta. There was no damage to the front of the car where Warford Jr. was sitting. Records indicate the rail speared through the rear door, cut across the car on a diagonal, and hit Warford Jr. in the back of the head.
"From what the coroner and everybody was telling me, he died instantly, so there was no helping him," said Warford Sr.
Crash scene photos show the guardrail end in Jeff's crash was an ET-Plus.
On impact, the ET-Plus is supposed to slow your car down by sliding along the rail, flattening it and ejecting it out to the side, away from the car.
Last week a federal jury found the product's maker, Trinity Industries, guilty of defrauding the government by secretly shrinking the design of the ET-Plus to save money.
"To go and hide it and to say 'Well, we did this or we changed this.' No, you didn't fix it. It makes me mad," said Warford. "It's not just my son, it's a whole lot of other people who've been through this."
In California, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee and at least seven other states, families say the ET-Plus malfunctioned, sending the rail through the car, killing, impaling or slicing off limbs of their loved ones.
"They're just sitting there waiting to kill you," said attorney Steven Lawrence, who is working on more than a dozen lawsuits against Trinity Industries. He's traveled to 35 states, including Georgia, measuring the ET-Plus changes.
"Trinity can say whatever they want about any individual wreck and they can send an army of lawyers to fight any individual case," said Lawrence. "But when you have years and years of data it speaks for itself."
In September, a University of Alabama study found the ET-Plus “placed motorists at a higher level of risk of both serious injury and fatality” than the original version of the product.
Amid the scrutiny, the state departments of transportation in dozens of states have stopped buying any new ET-Plus guardrail ends.
Virginia went the extra step and announced this week it would begin removing all ET-Plus end terminals from the state’s roadways.
Georgia's Department of Transportation is, so far, sticking with the product.
"We are monitoring all developments pertaining to the recent verdict in a case involving Trinity Industries and an industry competitor. The Federal Highway Administration, in coordination with state DOTs, is looking closely at the performance record of the ET-PLUS model to develop data-driven analysis of the product. We will continue to communicate with our federal partners to determine what effect this ruling will have, if any, on the continued eligibility of the ET-Plus and what the expectations will be for each state moving forward.”
Internal emails obtained by Channel 2 indicate the state planned to increase its volume of use, by requiring a competitor of Trinity to supply extra railing with its end terminals, driving its price higher.
"I was flabbergasted. Taxpayers will pay more and more people will die," said Dr. Dean Sicking, one of the world's leading experts on guardrails. "They're going to use an accounting gimmick to virtually eliminate the competition for the ET-Plus."
Sicking admits he receives royalties as the inventor of one of ET-Plus' main competitors. However, he also invented six of the nine types of guardrail ends still in use today, including the original design on which the ET-Plus was based.
"ET-Plus' safety performance is nowhere near its competitors and its costs, if you compare apples to apples it’s basically the same," said Sicking, "We need to have more aggressive and more modern purchasing systems that give competitive advantage based on safety performance not based on anything else."
In the email chain, the leading expert from the Federal Highway Administration ultimately agreed that Georgia should not provide the cost advantage for ET-Plus. Georgia leaders disagreed and did it anyway.
Fleischer asked GDOT Commissioner Keith Golden if it was possible that the world's leading expert on guardrail end terminals is telling the truth about the potential dangers of the decision.
Golden replied, "I do not believe that his research necessarily has resonated across the entire state DOTs around the country yet."
When Fleischer asked about the other states that had erred on the side of caution and pulled the product from its purchasing list, Golden defended the ET-Plus, saying he has a directive from the Federal Highway Administration saying it is still approved.
But after a Texas jury ruled against Trinity Industries, a judge ordered the company to pay $525 million for defrauding the Federal Highway Administration. The agency announced it would require Trinity Industries to perform new crash tests to prove the ET-Plus works.
The FHWA has also asked every state to provide ET-Plus crash data. Georgia does not keep any.
"Not knowing the details of every single individual crash, you can't make a determination on whether the end treatment is the cause or effect of that particular crash," said Golden.
Channel 2 filed open records requests and scoured Georgia crash reports and photos from the last three years.
Fleischer uncovered a 2013 fatal crash in Habersham County involving an ET-Plus which appears to have speared into the passenger compartment of the car.
"It was like someone shot that guardrail right through and it turned. It just made a complete turn right to the driver," said Flora Wade. "I know it had to be the guardrail that killed her."
Wade lost her friend, Eunice Ferguson, and almost lost Ferguson's sister, Opal Shook. Shook chose to sit in the back seat to make room for a pet carrier to be placed on the front seat.
"If she was in front it wouldn't have been good at all. They would have both been killed," said Wade.
Channel 2 Action News has repeatedly called and emailed Trinity Industries' spokesman to ask about the Georgia crashes and the overall safety of the ET-Plus, we've received no response.
Last Friday, the company announced it would halt shipment of any more ET-Plus end terminals until after the new crash tests are finished.
As for GDOT, Golden says he will stick with the ET-Plus as long as the Federal Highway Administration allows its use, "If anything indicates to us that there is some validity to these results we're hearing about, then we'll take action."
Wade's reaction: "That can happen to anybody, anywhere, and you can't put a dollar sign on a life. It needs to be fixed, and now."
"I 100 percent believe the guardrail killed my son," said Warford Sr. "They should have to fix every single one of them so nobody else has to go through this. That's my goal, that's my drive. It gives me something to live for."