BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) — The Virginia Department of Transportation says it has replaced 18 guardrail end terminals after complaints from a safety advocate and questions from News Channel 11.
With their iconic black and yellow diagonal stripes, guardrail end terminals are metal plates designed to peel away guardrails from a crashing car.
But Steve Eimers said he discovered several end terminals in the VDOT Bristol district that he worries wouldn’t function properly in the event of a crash.
“They’re rusted out,” he told News Channel 11. “The structural integrity is simply gone. In some cases, the whole lower tray is missing.”
Eimers knows guardrails, and he knows tragedy.
In 2016, his 17-year-old daughter Hannah died when her car hit a guard rail end terminal near Knoxville. The rail impaled her vehicle.
Eimers sued the company that made the terminal. He said that the lawsuit has reached what he described as a satisfactory conclusion.
Eimers also launched a nationwide road safety campaign. Most recently, he’s been traveling interstates and state routes around the country looking for evidence of damaged or “Frankensteined” road safety equipment. That’s the term he uses for equipment that’s been improperly installed or repaired.
That traveling advocacy effort led him to Interstate 81 near Bristol, Virginia, where he said he noticed something strange.
“I was seeing what appeared to be rusted out sequential kinking terminals,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it because that’s an incredible terminal.”
The sequential kinking terminal, also known as the SKT, is made by Road Safety Inc. Eimers calls it one of the most trusted products of its kind.
Stunned by what he saw, he documented the discovery and kept looking.
Eimers said he traveled from terminal to terminal on Interstate 81 on the north and southbound lanes. He said he found 20 terminals with rust and metal loss between Bristol and Marion, Virginia.
Eimers sent that information to VDOT, and he alerted News Channel 11.
“These are not crash-worthy,” he said, referring to the terminals he found along I-81. “We don’t know how these would perform in a crash.”
Guardrail end terminals are required to meet crash testing standards with close scrutiny of their design and specific requirements regarding their installation.
Eimers thinks the rust and metal loss is the result of decades of exposure to harsh weather, road salt and brine.
“I would say those are at least 20 years old,” he said.
While Eimers has emerged as a national spokesman for guardrail safety, News Channel 11 wanted a second opinion. Photos of the rusty guardrails on I-81 between Bristol and Marion were shown to Road Safety Inc., the company that made them and sold them to VDOT and other states nationwide.
John Durkos, Vice-President for Technical Support and Marketing, said the company inspected the photos and believes the terminals need to be replaced.
“Our primary concern is for the integrity of the product and the safety of the motorists. Any materials that are placed in harsh environments will eventually need attention. From the steel or rubber in automobiles to timber or plastics, mother nature can eventually take its toll. Based on the photos we have seen, that looks to be the case on a couple of these guardrail terminals. We have not seen this extreme case of rusting in the past and our understanding is this is an isolated situation for some terminals that have been in place for possibly a couple decades and are the property of the State. It would appear there were some extreme environmental conditions in this area.”
John Durkos, VP Road Safety Inc.
A VDOT spokesman declined a request by News Channel 11 to answer questions about the safety concerns on camera but agreed to answer questions through email.
“VDOT has a maintenance program to schedule repairs or replacements when terminals are hit or damaged,” said Marshall Herman, VDOT Assistant Director, Communications. “VDOT also has a program focusing on replacing terminal types which no longer meet current VDOT design standards.”
“Safety is paramount at VDOT. VDOT has programs to replace damaged guardrails as well as a risk-based program to replace a certain number of older terminals each year. The agency also is assessing information on factors that may accelerate deterioration of terminals in certain locations of the commonwealth and will determine if additional attention needs to be focused on terminals in those areas. We will look for opportunities through our routine maintenance activities to identify any additional locations for replacements as appropriate.”
(In reference to VDOT’s maintenance and operations program including guardrail assessment and the agency prioritizing guardrail terminal replacements annually) “…this includes inspections and potential replacements as part of some new paving or some construction projects as well as replacing guardrail terminals that are damaged due to hits from crashes we are aware of. We are also constantly updating our inventory of pre-MASH guardrail terminals so that those terminals can be prioritized for risk-based replacement as funding is available.”
Marshall Herman, VDOT Assistant Director, Communications
At first, Herman said VDOT inspected all the terminals identified by Eimers and was “in the process of replacing terminals where warranted.”
After a request for clarification, Herman said, “Out of an abundance of caution, the agency determined that 18 terminals within VDOT’s Bristol District should be replaced.”
Late Thursday afternoon, VDOT said its already replaced 18 terminals. The agency released photos of one of the terminals before and after it was replaced on Interstate 81 South at mile marker 45.5 near Marion, Virginia.
But Eimers said he doesn’t understand. If VDOT has multiple programs to monitor guardrails, he wants to know how could this have happened.
“VDOT cannot just ‘set ’em and forget ’em,’” he said. “They need to get out on the roadside. They need to be looking at their terminals.
“VDOT needs to inspect every inch of state DOT roadways. Ultimately, they need to inspect every terminal in the state.”