ATLANTA - Georgia's Department of Transportation says it will now develop an inventory system to locate and replace deadly and outdated guardrail ends, after a Channel 2 Action News investigation found them all over Georgia's roads. See investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer's story on Channel 2 Action News at 6.
Breakaway Cable Terminals Are To Blame, Still 300 Of Them in Use
The breakaway cable terminals, or BCTs, are so dangerous, the federal government told states to remove them back in the 1990s. But investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer mapped more than 300 still in use.
The BCT covers the sharp end of the guardrail and is supposed to steer the car away, not spear right through it.
But Georgia families say it's instead slicing through cars and killing drivers.
Even the emergency crews couldn't believe it when they arrived at Jacob Spradley's wreck along Interstate 20 in Warren County in November 2013. The giant metal guardrail had sliced right into his car, straight through Jacob Spradley and his passenger.
"I would not look at the pictures of the vehicle. I didn't want to see it," Jacob Spradley's mother, Vicki Spradley told Fleischer. "It cut him -- pretty much cut him in half.
She described her son as outgoing and friendly. He had just gotten a new job and a new-found friendship with his mom.
"The last couple months were the best months of my life with him," said Spradley, "I didn't know what to think. It didn't make sense."
She believes Jacob may have fallen asleep at the wheel. His car left the roadway and spun into the BCT, a rounded piece of metal located at the end of the guardrail.
What his mom did not know is that the BCT should not have even been there.
Dr. Dean Sicking invented six of the nine types of guardrail ends in use today. He authored the current national guidelines for safety hardware, and sat on the committee which banned further purchase of BCTs in 1994.
"I know that they were killing hundreds of people per year back when they were widely used," Sicking told Channel 2.
FHWA Deems BCTs "Too Stiff" to Protect Drivers
In 1998, the Federal Highway Administration issued a safety memo telling states, “BCTs should now be replaced” due to “unacceptable passenger compartment intrusion.” It also noted BCTs are “too stiff” to protect drivers.
"I fought long and hard to get the BCT in a category that it had to be replaced under any maintenance, because I knew it was a very dangerous system and needed to be taken out," said Sicking.
But the FHWA stopped short of requiring states to immediately find and remove all BCTs, instead allowing the replacements to happen gradually as departments of transportation completed routine roadwork.
"I would like to think they're following the FHWA advice that any time they do any significant pavement maintenance, they'll bring all safety hardware up to current standards," added Sicking. "And if they're doing that then there shouldn't be that many out there."
Fleischer asked Georgia's DOT commissioner, Keith Golden, how many BCTs remain on Georgia's roads today.
"I couldn't give you an exact number," replied Golden, admitting his department keeps no records of which type of guardrail ends Georgia has, and where.
"I would say there are very few, there may be a few out there they've been missed, but I would venture to say most of them have been caught and repaired," Golden continued.
Fleischer then showed Golden a map compiled by Channel 2 Action News detailing locations of more than 300 BCTs all over Georgia highways.
- Interstates 75 & 285 in Cobb County
- Interstate 675 in DeKalb County
- Interstate 985 in Hall County
Fleischer asked why there are still so many 16 years after the FHWA recommendation.
"You can't go out and do it overnight," Golden replied. "In the transportation world that's not necessarily that long of a time."
Fleischer also found several BCTs that had clearly been hit along State Road 316 in Gwinnett County, but had yet to be replaced.
On Buford Highway (GA 13) in Atlanta, two BCTs sit just feet from others that have been replaced.
Crews clearly missed a few on Interstate 20 in Douglas County, where a fresh asphalt project just finished.
"There's many places we haven't made any transportation investments in terms of what would be referred to as the 3R repaving, resurfacing, rehabilitation of those roads," said Golden, citing the specific kinds of projects that require the guardrails be upgraded.
He says the rules allow some exceptions, and with tight budgets GDOT may have skipped some. But Golden did ask for a copy of the map Channel 2 compiled.
"If we missed something in projects, or if we haven't gotten to those things or if it meets the criteria, we want to address it," said Golden.
Vicki Spradley says it's too late for her son Jacob, but GDOT should be doing more.
"I just don't understand how hard it is to fix something, especially when it comes to human life. Go out there and find them," she said.
Two weeks after Golden's interview, a GDOT spokesperson contacted Fleischer to say the commissioner had done some additional research and decided take action.
He vowed to send crews around the state to seek out the remaining BCTs and create a timeline to replace them all. The replacements will be prioritized based on traffic volume on each road.
More Deadly BCT Crashes
In April, 24-year-old Paul Bohaczyk crashed into a BCT guardrail end along Ronald Reagan Parkway in Gwinnett County. Police noted in their report that the guardrail came into the car on impact, and cut through his seatbelt.
When his car continued down an embankment into a tree, Bohaczyk was thrown into the passenger seat and killed.
Experts told Channel 2 Action News Georgia has one of the worst track records for removing the outdated BCT guardrail ends. However, a few still linger in other states as well. In February, Geary Ryan lost one of his legs and severely damaged the other when the car he was riding in hit a BCT along a rural Montana road.
Attorney Mel Hewitt represents Geary Ryan and the families of Jacob Spradley and Paul Bohaczyk. Hewitt has sent notice to the Departments of Transportation in Georgia and Montana citing intent to sue over failure to remove all BCT's.
There is much more to this story. In some places, GDOT replaced the BCTs with a new kind of end that's facing its own scrutiny. The company that makes them was just found guilty of fraud worth $500 million.
Channel 2 investigative reporter has uncovered two Georgia deaths linked to that product. For more than a month, GDOT defended use of the ET-Plus, with a sudden about face Thursday morning as Channel 2's investigation broke online.