Guardrails May Be Dangerous

Guardrails can be dangerously designed. Severe accident cases involving impacts with guardrails should always entail an analysis of the design of the guardrail, and whether the guardrail was properly designed and installed, given its intended use, and other guardrail design options that are available.

Recent lawsuits in the US claim that some new guardrails and their terminal heads have become dangerous “since the guardrail head model changed in 2005.” In a recent article, the KNXV-TV Phoenix (11/22,) website reports Josh Harman filed a lawsuit against Trinity Industries, which makes most of the guardrails found in the roads today. Amid a patent dispute with Trinity, Harman found that the “guardrail terminal heads were no longer working how they should.”

Later, the report notes that “in a deposition from Harman’s patent lawsuit,” FHWA officials said they did not find out “about the changes to the guardrail until long after they were already” installed on roadways. The article shows a video of guardrail impacts, and the case in question.

These guardrails are all across the world, including 60 countries and all 50 states. In the older model, the feeder chute was five inches wide and more than 15 inches high. The exit chute is one-and-a-half inches. Upon impact, the railing should thread through the terminal head and pigtail out the side away from the car.  Many newer model guardrails have are smaller heads, that are only four inches wide, not five. Harman alleges  that with the smaller terminal head, the railing either gets stuck behind the head or acts like a projectile shooting through the car and its passengers inside. “These changes are resulting in fatalities, injuries,” said Harman, “a guardrail is not supposed to cut a person in half.”

Read more on this case at:

Guardrail design is very complicated. Though they have usually prevented far more serious accidents, guardrails have frequently ranked as among the highest sources of injury and fatality in a fixed-object crash.

One study says that approximately 25 percent of claims involving road design issues allege improperly installed guide rails or the absence of guide rails. The allegations typically allege that a rail was needed to guard against a hazard or obstruction, or that the existing rail was inadequate or presented a hazard in itself. See

Among the primary reasons for this is the type of treatment used at the end of the guardrail facing oncoming traffic. Most end designs will either deflect, absorb, or launch the vehicle.  There have also been cases in Canada involving the design of guardrails, including one case involving cement barriers that allegedly caused cars to launch into the air into oncoming traffic, when struck at an angle and at sufficient speed.

There are four general types of guardrail, ranging from weakest and inexpensive to strongest and expensive; cable and wood posts, steel and wood/metal posts, steel box-beam, and concrete barriers. While cheaper guardrails are the weakest, often being destroyed from the impact of a light vehicle, they are inexpensive and quick to repair, so these are frequently used in low-traffic rural areas. On the other hand, concrete barriers usually withstand direct hits from vehicles as heavy as trucks, making them well suited to high volume routes such as freeways. While rarely damaged, they would be considerably more expensive and time-consuming to repair.  Concrete barriers are frequently installed in the median, being expected to withstand frequent impacts from both sides, while the shoulders of the road often have cheaper guardrails.

The design of the guardrail or barrier, and its placement, should be carefully reviewed by the lawyer in every serious injury case involving guardrail/barrier collisions. Poorly placed and/or poorly designed barriers may cause unnecessary injury when vehicles collide with them. There have also been cases where the lack of a median or guardrail resulted in a serious head on collision, or embankment collision or rollover.

A claim for negligent guardrail design, or negligent guardrail placement, or lack of a proper guardrail or median, could potentially result in liability against the governmental agency, contractors, and/or engineers responsible for the design and maintenance of the roadway and barriers.

Paul Mitchell, Q.C. has extensive experience with severe injury claims, including product liability claims and highway design claims. He acts for injured clients all over BC and Alberta, and will not act for ICBC, or any other insurance company.

For more information on this article, or for a confidential discussion of your claim, contact Paul Mitchell, Q.C. at 250-869-1115 (direct line), or at  [email protected]

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