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Internal emails uncover questions surrounding maker of X-Lite guardrails, found installed throughout Alaska

Lawsuit alleges Lindsay Corporation knew about design defects, Lindsay maintains guardrails are safe
Internal emails uncover questions surrounding maker of X-Lite guardrails. Manufacturer maintains they're safe.
Published: Jun. 14, 2022 at 9:00 PM AKDT|Updated: Jun. 15, 2022 at 10:04 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - An Alaska’s News Source investigation into alleged safety issues surrounding the X-Lite guardrail found there are hundreds of these guardrails installed in Alaska. Some lawsuits claim the manufacturer knowingly withheld information about design defects. For nearly six years, Steve Eimers has been on a mission to expose what he calls “deadly dangers” associated with these guardrails. He claims his daughter died because her car crashed into an X-Lite, however, the X-Lite guardrail’s manufacturer maintains their product is safe.

In 2016, 17-year-old Hannah Eimers was driving to her home in Tennessee, when her car slammed into an X-Lite guardrail, killing her instantly.

“Hannah was eviscerated,” Eimers said. He worked as a trained registered nurse, but his time in the emergency room did little to ease the shock. “I have seen horrific things. Nothing prepared me for the trauma that I would see that X-lite inflicts on people.”

The X-Lite guardrail end terminal was designed to protect people, with rails that telescope inwards, absorbing the energy of a colliding vehicle. In Hannah’s crash, the rails telescoped properly, but the headrail still penetrated the side of her vehicle, and since her death, Eimers’ investigation has raised questions about the guardrail’s manufacturer, Lindsay Transportation Solutions, based in Rio Vista, California. In 2019, Eimers filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. In it, he claims the company’s own crash testing exposed potentially deadly failures.

“They just show that this system was extraordinarily unstable and very prone to spearing a vehicle,” Eimers said.

Alaska’s News Source investigated this issue for the past five months and obtained hundreds of Lindsay’s internal emails and memos, which have since been filed in court documents and may provide clues as to whether the company knew about any potential defects. In a 2011 memo regarding the X-Lite prototype, workers discussed the cable used to anchor the guardrails during a collision, noting, “the tube on the slider bracket is not big enough to allow the cable to pass through it.” During crash tests, workers would have to grind and sand the cable to reduce its diameter ”in order for it to fit” through a steel slider tube. The proposed solution was to “use a larger tube” but the counter response was “do not change it.” However, Lindsay later claimed it did increase the size of the tube, which is noted in a compliance audit conducted five years later by Lindsay’s own vice president of global operations.

Eimers’ lawsuit calls this a “sham audit,” in which he says Lindsay “attempted to cover up the X-Lite’s defects” after the fact. He also found the facility that conducted Lindsay’s crash testing was owned by Lindsay. Though not illegal, the Government Accountability Office now calls that kind of business relationship “an inherent potential threat to independence in the testing process.”

“We have a company that just does not seem to have a moral compass,” Eimers said.

Records show Lindsay continued changing parts and revising installation manuals years after the Federal Highway Administration had approved the X-Lite’s design in 2011.

“They failed to disclose their changes that they made to the X-Lite and they did not disclose that to the states,” Eimers said.

Alaska’s News Source found up to 11 versions of X-Lite’s installation manual issued between 2011 and 2015. On the surface, they appear the same, with no indication they were revised. But early versions say nothing about placing a bolt through rails 3 and 4. Then, later versions tell installers they need to install a bolt through certain rails.

“They have a disclaimer in very tiny, small print, these manuals are subject to change without notice,” Eimers said.

Eimers claims Lindsay knew that particular change was critical and produced a training video so road crews would get it right. We obtained the 2012 patent describing the importance of that bolt in allowing the rails to telescope properly.

“It says without a bolt passing through rails 3 and 4 at post 7, we have found it impossible to control the sequencing of this system,” Eimers said.

Eimers’ lawsuit claims Lindsay, “made more than a hundred secret modifications to the X-Lite” after it was approved for use on roadways, which violated federal criteria, according to Eimers’ lawsuit. Lindsay says they did submit the two “significant” modifications made to the X-Lite and their expert stated, “the FHWA did not expect manufacturers to notify them of...‘non-significant’ modifications if the modification was thought to have no effect on the operation of the end terminal”

Officials at Alaska’s Department of Transportation said they installed nearly 300 X-Lite end terminals on high-speed roadways. Alaska’s News Source hit the road and discovered numerous X-Lites in and outside of Anchorage that were apparently struck by vehicles. One was just outside of Wasilla, apparently where a vehicle accident hit a Lindsay X-Lite. It appeared a car struck the headrail and the rail buckled, then the rail remained straight in one section where it was designed to telescope inwards. Further down the rails, we found yellow shear bolts, which were developed to shear, or break off, allowing those rails to telescope inwards. That apparently did not happen in that accident since they were intact, though, it would require an engineer to determine whether the guardrail functioned properly.

Shear bolts may be the most critical part of the X-Lite’s design, given their function is to hold key guardrails together until impact when they break off. If they don’t, vehicles could be speared. Evidence collected by Eimers through his lawsuit suggests that years after X-Lites were installed, Lindsay was still trying to produce a shear bolt that would work properly. In February 2015, Lindsay’s quality manager wrote an email about recent problems with shear bolt testing and writes, “shear requirements have never been and are still not on the print” He goes on to say, “engineering still doesn’t know what the high and low shear values should really be. The parts that are now in question are the ones engineering told them to run to without any form of testing to support.”

“He is saying that they had, that engineering said to run these without any kind of testing support,” Eimers said. “That is just a callous and reckless disregard for human life.”

In 2016, before Hannah’s crash, three people in Tennessee were killed in two separate accidents after their vehicles struck X-Lite guardrails. An engineer with Tennessee’s DOT, or TDOT, stated in both accidents, “The shear bolts did not shear.”

Paul Degges is TDOT’s chief engineer and wanted to know whether the force used to tighten shear bolts could have been a factor in those crashes.

“We really needed to have a specification on that torque to make sure that the initial installation was done correctly,” Degges said.

Lindsay’s engineer at the time stated TDOT received installation manuals but had issues getting inspectors to follow instructions. Lindsay provided TDOT with a shear bolt test report, which determined, “overtightening of shear bolts would not adversely affect how they actuated.” But Eimers’ lawsuit points to a different version of that report and claims Lindsay falsified its results, saying the original one found, “if the bolts are overtightened, they get weakened and will shear sooner.”

“We don’t believe we ever got a satisfactory answer to the question that we had about, ‘how tight do you torque those bolts?’” said Degges. As a result, all X-Lites were removed from Tennessee’s roadways.

Alaska’s News Source asked Lindsay Corporation specific questions about shear bolts and other issues but received no direct response. They did send a statement saying, in part, “The X-Lite ... passed all required safety tests. On two separate occasions ... the Federal Highway Administration 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.”

Alaska is one of those states. Alaska’s DOT officials say, “there’s no national data that indicates X-Lites do not perform as designed.” But they also admit they don’t keep track of the types of guardrails they have installed.

According to TDOT, the shear bolts worked, and rails telescoped properly in Hannah’s crash, but Eimers claims the guardrail still failed to absorb the car’s impact. Eimers’ trial began yesterday, and he will have a chance to prove his allegations in court.

In Hannah’s crash, a Lindsay expert maintains her car hit the guardrail sideways, so it penetrated the door, which is the vehicle’s weak point.

“They sold a product, a safety product that is producing injuries similar to weapons of war,” Eimers said. “This is a very serious hazard on Alaska roadways, and I think Governor Dunleavy has to step up.”

Alaska’s News Source contacted the governor’s office about the X-Lite issue, they directed us to speak with officials at Alaska’s DOT, who provided information but refused to do an on-camera interview.

In 2019, Lindsay announced they were being investigated by the Department of Justice for potential violations of the False Claims Act, though the specifics of the investigation are unknown. In 2020, the state of Missouri sued Lindsay Corporation, claiming the company committed fraud by modifying the X-Lite’s design and failing to disclose known defects. That case is still pending.

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