ATLANTA - A dozen states across the country are removing controversial guardrail heads from highways. The guardrail end caps have been blamed for spearing cars and killing and maiming drivers and passengers.
You can find some guardrails heads, called X-LITES, right here in metro Atlanta. The Georgia DOT says it will no longer install those guardrails in the future.
The Federal Highway Administration first approved the X-LITE guardrail head in 2011. The FHWA told states, it had been tested, and was safe to install. Now, after tragic accidents, caused by the guardrail spearing cars, many states are taking them off the roads.
A dashboard camera was rolling in July of 2016 when Wilbert Byrd headed south in Tennessee, toward the Georgia border. He crashed head-on into a X-LITE guardrail end.
Designed to protect him, instead, the metal railing ripped through the car killing Byrd instantly.
A freak accident? Our investigation has found this type of spearing accident involving the X-LITE guardrail head has happened across the country. We found 11 cases from Missouri to South Carolina to Tennessee.
“If this had been the Governor's child. This would have been off the road,” says Steve Eimers.
Eimer's daughter Hannah was killed in November 2016 - also in Tennessee. Her car veered off the road and hit an X-LITE from the side. The guardrail ripped through the driver-side door of her Volvo. She died instantly. In a lawsuit, Eimers claims the guardrail failed to perform as designed.
“This is someone who sought justice, loved mercy, and walked with God,” Eimers says of his daughter.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation told us "in that [Hannah's] case the end terminal functioned properly."
But six days prior to Hannah's accident, the Tennessee DOT - due to earlier fatal accidents and what it called "unclear installation instructions" from the manufacturer, announced it would no longer put X-LITES on the highways
“They played Russian roulette with her life and she lost,” said Eimers.
Virginia highway officials were also concerned. In late 2016, after a series of fatal accidents, Virginia, conducted its own X-LITE crash tests. Two cars were not penetrated by the guardrail, but both flipped or rolled over.
Although the Virginia DOT didn't say X-LITES failed the crash test, they told federal highway officials due to "concerns with the test results" they "removed [X-LITES] from the Department's Approved Products List.
Our investigation found following the deaths of Hanna Eimers and others [map with all the states] 12 states across the county - including Virginia and Tennessee decided to remove X-LITES from the roadways.
In Missouri, after 6 serious accidents, including two fatal crashes like this one that killed George Jansen, the state spent $4 million pulling X-LITES off the road
Lindsay Transportation Solutions which builds the guardrail ends gave us a statement: "While X-LITE has successfully passed crash and safety tests in accordance with Federal standards, there is no road safety equipment that can prevent injury every time a driver fails to stay on the road."
Those fatal accidents like Wilbert Byrd's led to lawsuits all across the country. We examined 5 wrongful death lawsuits in involving 6 deaths. And a sixth case, the driver survived - but lost a leg. Lindsay Transportation Solutions denies any wrongdoing.
What about Georgia?
“It's reasonably certain that a family in Georgia, if it has not already happened, it's going to happen to them,” said Eimers.
Not so fast, says the Georgia DOT. Georgia DOT spokeswoman, Natalie Dale, says only 300 of Georgia's 32,000 guardrail heads are X-LITES. She says there have been no fatal accidents involving an X-LITE in Georgia.
Still, to be safe, she says the Georgia DOT was one of the first 5 states to remove the X-LITES from a list of approved products. the DOT no longer allows the X-LITE to be installed. She says the fatal crashes, though tragic, are isolated cases very few states have seen.
“If and when federal highway says this product is not safe and is not performing, then we'll take it off the road. But, we don't have the data that it is not performing,” said Dale.