DENVER -- Kristen Gerhard’s memory of a June trip down Interstate 25 still comes in painful flashes.
The 31-year-old Fort Collins resident was returning from a job interview when she said she had a moment of indecision as to whether or not to take the Johnstown exit. By the time she corrected her Dodge Durango, it was too late.
Police and emergency reports show Gerhard hit a guardrail end cap terminal nearly head-on.
Although the guardrail system was designed to make such accidents less traumatic, the opposite occurred.
A forensic mechanical expert concluded the safety device failed to do its job, jamming up instead of feeding the guardrail through the terminal mechanism.
By the time Gerhard came to a stop, a 12-foot section of guardrail had doubled-up on itself and pierced through the driver’s door.
The metal crushed her lower legs, slicing through her left foot.
"I remember waking up and, because all the air bags had gone off, it was kind of sparking in the air, and I thought it was going to catch fire so I started trying to get out and my foot is stuck and I (pause) it was a horrible situation," Gerhard said.
Surgeons at first told Gerhard they were going to have to amputate, but after four surgeries, skin grafts and ligament replacements, Gerhard has regained some use of the foot.
During the months of rehabilitation, she kept wondering: Why did the guardrail not protect her instead of being the primary cause of her injuries?
“Had it not buckled that way, I believe I would have just kind of rolled down the hill that was there and stopped without even going over,” Gerhard said.
A lengthy investigation into the guardrail system involved in Gerhard’s crash found she is far from the only driver seriously injured or killed by end cap terminals failing to perform as designed.
Federal and state officials know about the safety devices’ limitations, but thousands of outdated or questionable end caps remain along highways.
Reconstructing the accident
A Colorado Department of Transportation work order shows just hours after Gerhard’s SUV destroyed the guardrail system near exit 252 in Weld County, the state ordered repairs and replacement.
The expediency in which CDOT moved to remove the mangled end cap terminal and put up a newer, better version set off alarms with Gerhard’s boyfriend, David Edwards.
“I drive Interstate 25 all the time,” Edwards said. “You see chunks of guardrail that sit there not fixed for months. And this one, as soon as I made contact the next day, it seems it was put back up and cleaned up.”
Edwards said he went to the CDOT operations center in Loveland shortly after the crash and asked if he could have the end cap. Edwards said he was told him no and that the piece had been destroyed.
Unfazed, Edwards went to the junkyard and bought the smashed SUV, with the guardrail still inside it, as potential evidence.
The FOX31 Problem Solvers took video of the crushed Dodge and pictures from the crash scene to Knott Laboratory in Centennial. It specializes in accident reconstruction.
Director of mechanical engineering Ben Railsback reviewed the material and came to a powerful conclusion.
“It failed to do its job,” Railsback said. "So, when I see a safety device that's not reliable and fails to do what it was promised to do, to me that's a dangerous product. ...
"It's supposed to keep a car on the road, instead of going through the car."
Railsback explained how the slit in the end cap was supposed to allow the guard to feed through, but because the SUV front-end jammed up the sliding rail, the end cap snapped off.
He determined only about 4 feet of rail snaked through the gap; in his opinion, creating an abnormal and abrupt stop.
The end cap terminal involved in Gerhard’s accident is a FLEAT model, sold by Road Systems Inc.
RSI’s vice president of technical support John Durkos said the terminal in question is on a federally approved list of roadside safety devices.
The NCHR-P-350 report has for years listed the FLEAT end cap as an approved device. But the federal government is moving toward a new, more stringent system of testing end caps. Durkos admitted the FLEAT has not met the updated guidelines, which go into full effect in 2018.
According to the RSI website, the FLEAT terminal is tested as “safe” at about 43 mph. CDOT placed that device along I-25 where the speed limit is listed at 70 mph.
Durkos also added that if the end cap had been damaged before Gerhard’s crash and not replaced with a new system, the device might not work as designed. He also questioned if CDOT had installed it correctly.
CDOT said it is still working on pulling maintenance records that could provide the answer.
One record is clear. CDOT replaced the destroyed FLEAT end cap terminal with a different design.
However, there are new questions following the federal report, so CDOT installed a different model and make to replace the destroyed one.
That end cap terminal, also made by Road Systems, is one of only two designs that have passed stringent new federal safety guidelines.
Federal study finds “performance limitations”
Federal safety investigators said they recently studied what's called “Extruding W-Beam Guardrail Terminal Crashes.”
The task force, commissioned in 2014, was made up of representatives from the Federal Highway Administration, the American Association of State Highway Transportation officials and State Department of Transportation representatives from nine states, but not Colorado.
The results found “performance limitations” for several terminal designs. One of those that didn’t test well in "real-world conditions” included the FLEAT.
The task force report reviewed hundreds of collisions between vehicles and terminals. On average, about 63 drivers/passengers a year die in a collision with an the end of a guardrail.
The safety analysis reviewed at least seven cases where a guardrail had penetrated a car, leaving vehicle occupants with serious injuries or killing them.
"The W-beam rail that is downstream does not have the necessary stiffness to resist bending. In either case, the terminal is no longer able to travel down the rail and absorb the energy of the crash. The vehicle may continue forward and come in contact with the kink in the rail," according to investigators.
The report also notes that in controlled safety testing, the FLEAT and other popular selling end caps like the ET-2000, made by Trinity, perform well.
However, investigators found performance issues in real-world conditions, especially when vehicles hit the end cap terminal head-on with a shallow angle corner or high-energy impact.
A task force spokesman said the report did not result in any safety recalls, but the information will be used in developing the new testing system called Manual for Assessing Safety Hardware.
CDOT said it is taking an active approach and has already started using MASH-approved items to replace damaged end-caps terminals. The only two that have made that list so far are the SKT-350 made by Road Systems (the one installed at Gerhard’s accident scene post-crash) and the SoftStop System made by Trinity.
Gerhard wishes Colorado would take action on the thousands of potentially dangerous older guardrail end caps still lining nearly every highway in Colorado and not wait to replace them until after a serious crash like hers.