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Virginia developing statewide review of potentially deadly guardrails

A guardrail fabricator based in Bristol, Virginia, is now labeling parts with stickers to avoid installation errors that can prove deadly.

BRISTOL, Va. — American steel and Virginia metalworking are making the guardrails that save lives on our highways. One guardrail fabricator said they have an easy solution to prevent potentially deadly "Frankensteined" guardrails.

“I know when our products are in use, it's already a bad situation, and they have to work,” said  SPIG Industries Vice President Don Monin at their fabrication plant in Bristol, Virginia. "One of the things we saw pop up was people putting our front panel in backwards."

Federal safety guidelines recommend against installing a guardrail of one brand, and an end terminal of another brand. These mismatched products are so-called “Frankensteined” guardrails.

“We have damaged equipment on the roadside. We have Frankensteined equipment on the road. So we have equipment that is not being properly installed bolts fastened through rails where they don't belong,” Steve Eimers said. Eimers lost his daughter in a crash after she struck a guardrail. 

"I just recently finished a review of several hundred NHTSA fatal incidents involving impacts on guardrail and terminals, and it was alarming to see the number of people that died in crashes where it was the rail was Frankensteined or upside down or had a bolt issue or had previous damage. I mean, we're talking about a guardrail that sometimes had been on the roadside for years and a functionally deficient state and but for that issue, that person might be alive today."

Improperly installed or malfunctioning guardrails can kill when they are meant to protect. Instead of absorbing the impact of a crash – they can impale people inside a car.

Credit: Steve Eimers
Steve Eimers' daughter Hannah was killed after hitting a guardrail.
Credit: WXIA
The "Frankensteined" Georgia guardrail hit by Isabella Alonzo

In January, Eimers visited D.C. congressional and regulator offices, pressing to turn federal safety guidelines into enforceable law. Currently, each state comes up with their own requirements for guardrail safety with little federal oversight.

"We're going to save lives, and it will be one of the most inconsequential things you do in your career, but it's going to have incredible consequences because it's going to save lives," Eimers told lawmakers.

Credit: Nathan Baca
Steve Eimers visits a congressional office in DC

Back on the highways, while driving to that guardrail fabricator in Bristol, we spotted a Frankensteined rail. It was along Interstate 81 near the town of Fairfield. We alerted Virginia’s Department of Transportation which replaced it one day after our alert.

Back in September, VDOT shot video of workers replacing other improperly installed guardrails we alerted them to around Northern Virginia. After our series of investigations, VDOT now says it is "developing" a Commonwealth-wide review of all its guardrails.

Maryland also pledged to do a statewide review after we alerted them of hazardous guardrails. In its latest update, MDOT says that review should be complete by the end of April.

In Bristol, Virginia, SPIG Industries now has a simple solution to prevent Frankensteined guardrails: Stickers. 

Credit: Ruth Morton
A SPIG manufacturer's sticker placed on a newly constructed guardrail

A sticker showing which way to install the rail, and a sticker showing which brand the end terminal is, to help prevent a mismatched and dangerous installation. The idea came when Elmers teamed up with Virginia metalworkers.

Credit: Ruth Morton
Welders at SPIG Industries in Bristol, Virginia.

"He basically asked if we ever thought of marking our panel to our system. And the answer was yes. We're doing it right now," recalled Monin.

This safety effort limited to one guardrail maker for now, with hopes others will make it an industry standard.

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