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This year, Curcio Law retained a case involving guardrail safety. It got us to thinking about guardrails and what people know about them. In 2015, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) both released memos about guardrails, their safety features, and how they were working to improve both. Below is an explanation of how guardrails are supposed to work, and over the next few weeks we will explore the reality behind these “safety barriers.”

According to the FHA memo, a guardrail is, “first and foremost, a safety barrier intended to shield a motorist who has left the roadway.” They are placed in areas where, were a vehicle to lose control, the guardrails would stop them from hitting trees, falling down slopes, or careening into other structures.

Guardrails are made up of a system of interlocking parts, the guardrail itself, the posts, the ground where the posts are driven in, the connection between the rail and posts, the end terminal, and the anchoring system at the end terminal. The simple way to look at the system is to focus on two key functional components, the end terminal (the starting point of the rail) and guardrail face (the part of the rail facing traffic). According to the FHA memo,

“The exposed end of the guardrail needs to be treated. One common treatment is an energy-absorbing end treatment that is designed to absorb the energy of an impact by having the impact head slide down the length of the guardrail. These end terminals function in two ways. When hit head-on, the impact head slides down the guardrail flattening, or extruding, the guardrail and redirecting the guardrail away from the vehicle until the vehicle’s impact energy is dissipated and the vehicle has decelerated to a stop. When hit at an angle, the impact head may partially extrude the guardrail and then “gate” out of the way allowing the vehicle to pass behind the guardrail. This means the terminal and guardrail is pushed through as if opening a gate.”

To explain more simply, when hit at the end terminal the guardrails should either absorb the impact and bend away from the car, like peeling a banana, or accordion-like a fan slowing the car down and guiding it to the inside of the guardrail.

This is how guardrails should operate, and there are amazing pictures on the FHA memo to help show how the buckling action and bending action look. However, many of these guardrails are dysfunctional and their upkeep is inconsistent. It is also prudent to mention that the crash tests performed did not exceed 62 mph, and at the bottom of this memo is a disclaimer stating that guardrails may not function properly if a vehicle exceeds 62 mph.

This series will explore where guardrail safety is currently, pulling from cases we have involving guardrails and other research current to the times. For more information watch this video on ABC8 where I explain the epidemic of defective guardrails prevalent throughout Virginia.

If you or a loved one has suffered due to a collision or incident involving guardrails, contact a Virginia personal injury attorney to discuss what legal recourse you may have for your pain and loss.

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