Guardrails are a critical element of safety on our highways. When selected, installed, and maintained correctly, a guardrail system can be the difference between life and death for motorists. They are designed to keep vehicles from leaving the road and plunging into dangerous areas, or to safely re-direct cars from a hazard.
While the intentions of safety are well noted, guardrails can be very dangerous depending on their design and the quality of their installation. Properly designed guardrails should keep a vehicle from plunging into a hazardous location, and if a guardrail end is hit directly, the end should fold backward and away from the car. In this way, the car should slow down, and any material from the guardrail should push away from the car during impact. It is therefore critical that the guardrail anchors be installed properly, and that they be spaced at precise distances to keep the end from becoming too stiff. If a guardrail is too stiff, it will not flare backwards, but will instead spear the car with devastating consequences.
In addition, many guardrails are outdated and have older breakaway cable terminal end pieces with blunt ends, or BCTs. These BCTs have been cited as too stiff to handle an approaching impact, and as a result, there have been numerous instances of BCTs completely spearing automobiles, oftentimes with devastating consequences. Since the 1990s, the Federal Highway Administration has taken the position that approach end BCTs are unacceptable for low or high speed roads due to a penetration hazard, yet these guardrails still exist on many of our roads. Our firm is currently handling a case where an approaching car struck a BCT head on, and the BCT penetrated the car’s firewall and speared through and out the back of the vehicle. In the process, the guardrail ripped the driver’s leg off. In other cases, BCTs have killed drivers.
Guardrails are supposed to save lives – not take them – and that must be a primary design objective. Safety personnel performing maintenance on our roads and bridges should be especially careful when maintaining or installing guardrails. If you have any questions about these cases, contact Chris Glover or Parker Miller, lawyers in our firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability Section, by email at Chris.Glover@beasleyallen.com and Parker.Miller@beasleyallen.com
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