Highway Guard Rail Manufacturer Bilks Federal Government Out Of $175 Million, Kills Motorists

Safety first, right?

According to the New York Times, a Texas jury determined Monday that a highway guard rail manufacturer, Trinity Industries, did, in fact, change its design of its guard rails in 2005 without notifying the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). The U.S. company was accused of selling guard rails that put drivers at risk, defrauding the U.S. government in the process for the sake of profit. Now, word is on the street (or highway, rather) that Trinity Industries is guilty.

It’s never very comforting to have such a strong example of a company allegedly built around providing safety to the public blatantly throwing that sense of security away for the sake of profit. One has to wonder why it exists in the first place, then, if it does not, in fact, provide the safety around which the products it builds are alleged and intended. Why not save money on air bag production by putting holes in them and using half the material? That’s essentially the scam Trinity Industries was running.

It seems Trinity narrowed the width of the guard rail heads by an inch, down to four from five. While that may not seem like a big issue, on a scale of mass production, that can save the company a healthy penny, yet the federal reimbursement program unknowingly continued to pay Trinity for the five-inch guard rail head design that had been originally proposed. But it’s not just a travesty that $175 million of taxpayer money was swindle into private pockets once again; it’s also that this small change in design likely makes these new, slimmer guard rails deadly.

That’s right, folks, you’ll potentially pay Trinity Industries twice in these good old Corporate States of America – once with your pocketbooks through tax dollars, and once with your very life if you are the unfortunate victim of a car wreck along the highway.

According to state regulators, the smaller guard rail heads pose a high likelihood of actually piercing automobiles, as well as their passengers, in a collision.

Rather than flattening the front end and bringing the car to an abrupt stop, you may find a nice hunk of metal plunged into your chest, and in that scenario, you can forget the seat belt precaution. That won’t save you.

In at least 14 additional lawsuits, plaintiffs claim Trinity’s changes to the guard rail design has led to five deaths and numerous injuries. But who cares about that? Heck, Trinity Industries was able to save a whopping $2 per rail head! That’s the part that is usually facing traffic and designated with the black and yellow caution stripes.

Other than the extreme lack of integrity, the problem is that federal law mandates that design changes such as Trinity Industries made are required to be communicated to the FHA immediately. It’s that old pesky system of checks and balances again, folks. Trinity, of course, has their own line of bull they’re shoveling in defense, claiming no safety risks are posed to the public through the change. But who are you going to believe, those profiting by the change to a tune of an extra $175 million, or those whose job it is to watch over the public sector’s safety? Conveniently, too, Trinity claims its failure to notify the FHA was “accidental”. Right …

Trinity’s new ET-Plus guard rails have already been banned by Missouri, Massachusetts, Virginia and Nevada.

Funny how the slimmer version is called a “Plus,” isn’t it?

Of course, the U.S. government balking at a company risking public safety for profit in this country does seem absurd, considering how frequent it is overlooked and approved. One can imagine Trinity Industries’ obvious disdain for such a position, though we have always been taught two wrongs don’t make a right, no? Still, lending a little more weight behind Trinity’s corporate eye-rolling, the FHA has actually continued to approve the latest, slimmer design.

It’s also reviewed crash tests to investigate, in the meantime, whether or not the guard rails actually are safe, though the New York Times reports that internal doubts regarding safety still abound. This October, the agency has asked for reports from state governments regarding ET-Plus. One spokesperson stated that the FHA will review the case and determine the safety (or lack thereof) of the smaller guard rail heads, and whether that affects Trinity Industries’ eligibility for federal reimbursement.

In the meantime, this week’s jury awarded Trinity Industries competitor Joshua Hartman $175 million. Hartman had filed a lawsuit under the False Claims Act on behalf of the federal government. Most likely, that figure will triple to $525 million, which is stipulated by federal law, to be split by Hartman and the federal government. The judge presiding over the case will make a determination as to whether Trinity Industries will be required to pay any additional penalties.

Trinity, of course, states that the company will appeal the guard rail ruling, confidently stating, as well, that the ruling “cannot and will not withstand legal scrutiny.”

Time will tell. Time, and however many more deaths occur on the nation’s highways as a direct result of Trinity Industries’ greed.

Not to put all the blame conclusively on Trinity Industries, though. Although they may have scammed money out of the government, the deaths related to the slimmer guard rail contain many factors, such as rate of speed the cars were traveling, make and conditions of the automobiles in the collisions, and let’s face it, freak, chaos-theory type occurrence.

While it was clearly wrong to bilk taxpayer money out of the government like that, the jury is still out as to whether Trinity Industries’ design change actually is at fault for the five deaths reported so far. The tests exhibited in the video below make that a tough call.

H/T: theverge.com / (Featured image courtesy of cbsboston.files.wordpress.com)

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