When it comes to highway safety, cover-ups and delaying tactics aren't a good idea. Full disclosure is usually a much better option. Consider the history: Ford stonewalled on its exploding Pintos, and that ended up costing the company far more than if it had just quickly admitted there was a problem. General Motors dragged its feet on defective ignition switches, and Toyota fought off any suggestion that its cars unintentionally accelerated. In both cases, a quick mea culpa would have worked better.

Now we have the strange case of Trinity Industries and its ET-Plus guardrails. Some 200,000 of them are installed around the country. The rails (which were subjected to undisclosed alterations in 2005) are suspected as a contributing factor in many horrific accidents, and have been banned in more than 30 states. The latest state to sue Trinity is Virginia.

NASA and Toyota's unintended acceleration case Unintended acceleration cases drew a lot of unwanted attention to Toyota, including a NASA investigation. (Photo: NASA/flickr)

Trinity never informed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the change, and never crash-tested the modified rails. In fact, the change only came to light because a whistleblower testified in a 2011 lawsuit. In October, following a Texas jury verdict against Trinity, the federal agency ordered the company to come up with a test plan, which will happen by the end of January 2015, the company says. Trinity stands by its rails, built under license from Texas A&M Transportation Institute. (Update: In a September 2017 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Trinity Industries did not commit fraud, reversing a lower court ruling. The company says the system meets all federal safety performance standards.)

“We have confidence in the ET-Plus System as designed and crash tested by Texas A&M Transportation Institute,” the company said. “It has met all tests previously requested by FHWA. We take the safety of the products we manufacture very seriously.”

But not everyone feels the same way.

"Trinity guardrails show what happens when government regulators miss safety defects — people die," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Allowing industry to police itself and certify highway technology as safe, whether it’s vehicles or guardrails, is an inherently flawed process that places sales over safety."

ABC News has been dogged in its pursuit of the guardrail case. ABC News has been dogged in its pursuit of the guardrail case. (Photo: ABC News)

As with the stories about unintended acceleration, the guardrail stories are graphic. The rail is supposed to peel away from the car and from the road but, in some cases — possibly because of the modifications — the rails have reportedly acted like giant knives, cutting into the vehicles that crash into them, and in one case cutting off a driver’s legs.

  • Jay Traylor was driving his Isuzu Trooper down a North Carolina highway last January when he swerved and hit the guardrail, which then sliced through the bottom of the car. He lost his legs, but survived. He’s suing Trinity.
  • In February, also in North Carolina, Darius Williams hit a guardrail in his Nissan Sentra, and once again it penetrated the car, sending Williams into the back seat and to intensive care.
  • Also in February, Brittany Robinson was a passenger in Virginia when her car hit an ET-Plus end terminal. The vehicle was speared and overturned, and Robinson’s child was pinned to the roof by the rail and injured. She suffered broken bones and is also suing.

Personal injury lawyers are circling, which always happens in cases like this with big potential paydays. If you Google “Trinity Industries Guardrails,” you’ll likely see a firm or two pop up. Here's more on video from ABC News:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

30 states ban dangerous guardrails
The rails have caused horrific injuries — and it may be related to a 2005 design change.