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Guardrails may have major design defect

There are many elements that go into making a highway safe. Here in New Jersey, you probably have not noticed most of them as you drive along.

Items like the width of the lane, the size of the shoulders, the length of the acceleration lane when merging, and the use of guardrails and barriers to separate traffic and minimize the effects of collisions with objects along the road, all help reduce accidents and they can reduce the type of injuries suffered if there is a crash.

New Jersey's Department of Transportation developed the now ubiquitous "Jersey barrier" that concrete barrier that often separates the lanes of multi-lane highways, as well as innumerable other locations. Its angled base causes tires to life off the road surface and reduces the speed of vehicles when they run into it.

Metal guardrails are even more common and you may not have noticed that they often have a fitting on their ends. This fitting, known as the rail head, is designed to curl the guardrail away from the vehicle that has crash.

A design change to a model used across the country has resulted in injuries related to some car accidents, leaving victims severely injured or dead. The defective fitting fails to curl the rail and instead allows it to be driven into the passenger compartment like a "bayonet."

The company denies the fitting is defective, and federal authorities, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have been very slow to react, at one point claiming there was insufficient evidence to investigate the issue.

However, several states have suspended use of the manufacturer's guardrails because of the problem. The Federal Highway Administration has now asked state transportation agencies to provide them with documents concerning these guardrails.

Given these rails have been in use for almost 10 years, it is frightening to think how many of these potentially defective guardrails could have been installed.

The New York Times, "Highway Guardrail May Be Deadly, States Say," Danielle Ivory and Aaron M. Kessler, October 12, 2014

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