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Father calls on Alaska governor to ban what he calls ‘deadly’ guardrails, which he claims killed his daughter

Steve Eimers’ lawsuit claims X-Lites have design flaws but the manufacturer maintains their guardrail is safe.
Father calls on Alaska governor to ban what he calls ‘deadly’ guardrails
Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 8:05 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - For nearly six years, a Tennessee father has been on a mission to warn states and drivers about what he calls “potentially deadly dangers” on our nation’s roadways.

This all surrounds a specific type of guardrail end terminal that dozens of states have removed, but Alaska’s News Source found is still prevalent here in Alaska. The X-Lite guardrail met federal safety requirements when it was approved for installation back in 2011, however, the guardrail doesn’t meet today’s standards -- though many remain on state highways. Alaska’s News Source has been looking into this for the past five months and found there could be nearly 300 of them on Alaska’s roadways right now.

Halloween of 2016 was the last time Steve Eimers would see his daughter Hannah.

“I had a bow, and I was heading out to the woods to go deer hunting,” Eimers said. Early the next morning, Eimers received a call that the 17-year-old was in a serious car crash near their home in Tennessee. Hannah’s vehicle struck a guardrail, which speared her car, killing her instantly.

“I’ve worked EMS, I’ve worked in the emergency room, I have seen horrific...,” Eimers’ recalled during an emotional interview.

Eimers learned the guardrail was an X-Lite, the same type involved in a number of crashes throughout the country in which vehicles were impaled. Sometimes killing or maiming passengers and drivers. One video demonstrated how X-Lites were intended to absorb the impact of a head-on collision, with rails telescoping inwards, but Eimers says he began finding crashes where that didn’t happen.

“There was another one in Tennessee and then North Carolina and South Carolina and all across the United States,” Eimers said. So Eimers wanted to know why. He says he drove thousands of miles examining X-Lites. While using a pair of calipers, he measured bolts and other key parts and, according to his lawsuit, measurements often differed from the manufacturer’s original design.

“This was a very survivable crash, my daughter did not die because she left the roadway,” he claims, “she died because she hit an X-Lite.”

Eimers sued the guardrail’s manufacturer, Lindsay Transportation Solutions, based in Rio Vista, California. He says that the lawsuit, which is still awaiting trial, forced Lindsay to produce alarming evidence. Like how crash testing was conducted at the same facility the company owned, something the Government Accountability Office now calls, “an inherent potential threat to independence in the testing process.”

The suit also claims Lindsay knew about design flaws but knowingly withheld that information from the Federal Highway Administration. That agency determines whether guardrails meet minimum safety standards.

Alaska’s News Source obtained hundreds of Lindsay’s internal emails and memos. In one email from January 2014, Lindsay officials discuss photos of real-world crash scenes. Lindsay’s product specialist tells the company’s president, “in this photo the rail buckled and is not a clean hit. ... If you have to leave the DOT photos, I would not leave this one.”

Later that year, the same product specialist is told about an installer in Missouri who “has doubts about the X-Lite and asked to see the crash videos.” When asked, “which videos (if any) should I not be showing contractors?” He names two that would be, “okay,” then says, “all the other videos are ‘not pretty’ and I would be critical of showing any of the other ones.”

“I think Lindsay has been extraordinarily deceptive,” Eimers said. Alaska’s News Source obtained one of the crash tests from the series Lindsay referenced as “not pretty.” The video shows a red car crashing into an X-Lite and the rail spears the front of the vehicle. When slowed down from a different angle, it’s evident that the guardrail goes all the way through the car and out the back windshield. “These are very ugly tests, they were terrible tests,” Eimers said.

In 2016, a similar crash occurred in Tennessee killing passenger Wilbert Byrd. The vehicle swerves to the left side of the roadway and hits the guardrail, the rails then pierce through the car and blow out the back windshield. As years passed, more deadly crashes involving X-Lites made headlines around the country. Some states banned the guardrails altogether, spending millions to remove them from the roadways.

However, Lindsay still maintains its product is safe. Their expert stated in Hannah’s crash the X-Lite functioned properly, and because her car hit the guardrail sideways, it penetrated the door, which is the vehicle’s weak point. In 2017 the FHWA was conducting an in-service pilot program to evaluate the performance of several guardrails including the X-Lite. In a memo that year the FHWA’s associate administrator for the Office of Safety stated, “We have also examined the most rigorous in-service data that we have to date -- the preliminary results of a pilot In-Service Performance Evaluation. Under the pilot, FHW A and the four states (MO, CA, MA and PA) are evaluating 9 energy absorbing guardrail terminals, including the Lindsay X-LITE. In considering the 200-plus crashes, the ratio of Fatality+ Serious Injury per total crashes does not lead to any conclusions that any of the devices, including the Lindsay X-LITE, are unsafe.”

Alaska’s News Source contacted the FHWA about the status of the ongoing evaluation and learned it has not been completed.

Lindsay Transportations Solutions defends their product stating, “The X-LITE as installed on U.S. roadways passed all required safety tests. On two separate occasions across many years, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) confirmed that the X-LITE’s tests were performed in accordance with all applicable standards and testing criteria. In FHWA’s evaluations of in-service performance, the X-LITE also performed consistently with other end terminals and did not lead to any conclusion that the X-Lite was unsafe. Numerous states have confirmed that they’ve had no negative experiences with the X-LITE.”

DOT officials in Alaska agree there’s no evidence that X-Lites pose any risk. In April 2017, Eimers contacted them to find out how many X-Lites were installed here. He says officials claimed there were none. That same month, the FHWA also began asking state DOTs to report how many X-Lites they had. The next day, Al Fletcher from FHWA’s Alaska Division Office responded saying, “Alaska does not have any X-Lite terminals in service at this time.”

But a few days later, the DOT realized they did. DOT emails noted numerous X-Lites located on the Parks Highway corridor, Pittman Road, and Fairview Loop in the Mat-Su and areas along the Kenai Peninsula. Four days later, Alaska DOT told Fletcher they had “maybe a couple” of X-Lites. Fletcher’s email acknowledges this and he then admits, “I have not updated my response” to federal highway officials in Washington, D.C.

The FHWA in Washington says Alaska eventually reported having “some” X-Lites, but they couldn’t tell us how many. To find out, Alaska’s News Source submitted a public records request to Alaska’s DOT. Records show between 2019 and 2020, the DOT located approximately 175 X-Lites. But their study only included roads where the posted speed limit was 50 miles an hour or higher and did not include areas with plans to replace guardrails in the next five years. “This is a very serious hazard on Alaska roadways, and I think Governor Dunleavy has to step up,” Eimers said.

In May of this year, due to our five-month investigation, Alaska’s DOT updated those numbers. They maintain there are still about a hundred X-Lites in parts of Southcentral Alaska, including Anchorage, but a further review found between 50 and 75 on the Hydaburg Highway on Prince of Wales Island and another 75 to 100 on Kodiak Island. That’s about 275-X-Lites, 100 more than DOT officials knew about. Though, at this point, they have no plans to remove them.

The DOT told us, in part, that it is working to, “modernize guardrails and end terminals on high-speed principal roadways. The department is ... expected to invest ... $40-50 million worth of guardrails, replacing over one thousand guardrail segments, or approximately 130 miles of outdated guardrails, throughout the Mat-Su, Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula.”

“They need to explain to your viewers why they are going to leave these dangerous guardrails on the roadside,” Eimers said. “That’s unconscionable, somebody’s going to die, and they will have blood on their hands.”

In 2018, the FHWA adopted stricter safety protocols, which the X-Lite didn’t meet, so they were discontinued. Alaska DOT officials say they plan to remove about 32 X-Lites during a project that’s expected to go to bid this fall. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office referred our questions about X-Lites to Alaska DOT. The DOT answered our questions by email but declined to do an on-camera interview. Tennessee’s DOT reported that in Hannah Eimers’ crash, the shear bolts worked and the rails telescoped properly, but Steve Eimers claims the guardrail still failed to absorb the car’s impact. His case against Lindsay Corporation is set for trial on June 13.

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