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News 13 Investigates: Guardrail Dangers

NC DOT says there are approximately 5,000 X-LITEs across the state.

Over the last several years, family members of crash victims and various state transportation officials have questioned the safety of guardrail ends. One of the deigns, the ET-Plus, was even re-tested in 2015.

Now, there are concerns over another guardrail end, the X-LITE. The company that manufactures it, Lindsey Transportation Solutions, stands behind federal safety tests.

But after several deaths in Tennessee, the Department of Transportation banned the X-LITE and is now pulling each one from their roadways.

In North Carolina, they are still considered safe. But on July 1st transportation officials implemented new guidelines a year early. Those new standards mean no new X-LITES will be installed. But, the North Carolina Department of Transportation says there's no plan to replace the approximately 5,000 X-LITES across the state. And a News 13 Investigation found that transportation officials don't even know where those thousands of products are located.

A DEADLY DEVICE?

Ladeana Gambill says the X-LITE guardrail end killed her daughter.

"It's just heartbreaking because just like that she was just gone," said Gambill.

Lauren Beuttel was her oldest child and was just 21 when she died on June 29th, 2016.

"Just hearing the words that she was killed... and we had to travel to Tennessee and she was in a body bag by that time and that's an image I'll never forget and I don't want other people to have to experience that," said Gambill.

Gambill says her daughter was riding back from a concert with friends when their car veered off I-40 in Cumberland County, Tennessee and hit a guardrail end.

"The guardrail broke off or malfunctioned and went through the car, from the front area all the way into the back and into the trunk," said Gambill.

Beuttel suffered a horrific death.

This device wasn't at all protective it was just deadly in my opinion.

Gambill believes her daughter's death could have been prevented.

"I'm convinced that if a different system had been in place she would be alive today," said Gambill.

THE SAFETY OF THE X-LITE

The North Carolina Department of Transportation says the X-LITE has passed current federal safety tests and is considered safe.

"The energy absorbing guardrail ends such as the ET-Plus, the Fleet, the X-LITEs, and those types out there have done their job in advancing a safer condition than what was out there prior to," said State Traffic Engineer Kevin Lacy.

Lacy says these types of guard rails were approved under National Cooperative Highway Research Program 350 testing standards.

But, he admits the product isn't perfect.

"Most of the 350 guardrail terminals had a similar issue with, again, that low angle impact crash," said Lacy.

He also says their data shows that they're seeing fewer serious accidents involving guardrail ends.

"We've had increase in the number of crashes hitting guardrails, increase in number of crashes hitting guardrail ends, but the severity of the crashes are going down," said Lacy.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation says over the last 15 years, there have been 474 accidents involving guardrail ends. And there have been ten crashes where the guardrail penetrated the car.

News 13 requested the reports from those ten accidents and found that six caused deaths. But Lacy says the reports don't include which type of guardrail end was used since law enforcement doesn't document that information.

When we asked the N.C. D.O.T. which crashes involved the X-LITE, they said they didn't know.

"Our department has historically said we are not maintaining, we have not chosen to develop and maintain an inventory of guardrail ends or a variety of other items out there," said Lacy.

The North Carolina D.O.T. says the X-LITE was approved in North Carolina in 2011, but they don't know where they've been installed or whether any of the serious of fatal accidents involved them.

They say locating each device would be too expensive, costing at least a couple million dollars. They say it would also cost over a million dollars to maintain that inventory, a cost that would fall back on taxpayers.

North Carolina is putting the new federal regulations for guardrails in place early, but will not be replacing the approximately 5,000 X-LITEs across the state.

"The ones that are in place will stay in place until they need to be repaired or the road is reconstructed," said Lacy.

LINDSAY TRANSPORTATION SOLUTIONS' RESPONSE

We reached out to the company that manufactures the X-LITE. They declined an interview but sent us a statement.

Lindsay Transportation Solutions’ top priority is to provide products that save lives, and we are always saddened when anyone loses his or her life.

"X-LITE has successfully passed crash and safety tests in accordance with Federal standards and criteria and remains eligible for Federal transportation funding. There is no road safety product that can prevent injury every time a driver fails to stay on the road, and X-LITE’s inability to singly prevent every tragedy is not a defect and does not mean X-LITE is unsafe. A variety of factors contributes to the potential for injury when a driver fails to stay on the road, including speed in excess of Federal testing criteria, the angle at which a vehicle makes impact, and whether road safety products are installed and maintained properly.”

They provided more information on the product from the Federal Highway Administration.

TENNESSEE SAYS THE X-LITE IS NOT SAFE

But, transportation officials in Tennessee had a different response to the same concerns.

BJ Doughty is a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

She says after several deadly accidents like Beuttel's, they started tracking all 1,800 X-LITES across the state.

Doughty says it was a lot of work but they used existing employees during normal hours, so it cost nothing.

Doughty says they now associate four deaths with the X-LITE.

"What we were seeing in the field is that instead of telescoping like the middle piece was coming out and there was a danger of intrusion," said Doughty.

She says they decided to contact Lindsey Transportation Solutions and asked for more training for the crews.

"We also had some concerns with how their instructions were written, there was some vagueness we thought and when we pressed them for more specifics, they were unable to give that to us," said Doughty.

So in March, TDOT decided to pull the X-LITE from their approved product list. They are now working to replace each one by next summer.

Doughty says it's costing 4.3 million dollars, but says it's worth the expense.

"We just don't feel comfortable that it's a good product to have out there on the transportation system," said Doughty.

DEMANDING CHANGE

But Gambill worries about the roads she drives every day in North Carolina and has joined other victim's families in a lawsuit against Lindsey Transportation Solutions.

She's also asking lawmakers to step in with one goal in mind - a nationwide recall of the X-LITE.

She says she hopes that the guardrail that took her daughter's life doesn't take any more victims.

"It is disappointing and frustrating, we just don't want to see other lives lost with this device, so I think it's just a ticking time bomb really," said Gambill.

We reached out to lawmakers on the North Carolina Transportation Committee, but none accepted the offer for an interview for this story.


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