Colorado inspecting every guardrail system for installation errors

DENVER -- The Colorado Department of Transportation has issued a nationwide alert, warning all 50 states about the potential dangers of installing guardrail systems with “Frankenstein-ed” parts.

That announcement, made along with the Federal Highway Administration on Tuesday, comes as a direct result of a FOX31 Problem Solvers investigation that aired last week.

“There is a potential you could have guardrail not prevent you from crashing into something and could potentially penetrate your cabin,” CDOT executive director, Shailen Bhatt, told a large group of reporters.

And in an unprecedented move: CDOT is sending inspectors to review every guardrail system in Colorado, all 21,000 of them, over the busiest road travel period of the year.

RELATED: Guardrail fact sheet

The FOX31 Problem Solvers have learned other states are following suit, looking for mis-matched parts that can cause the guardrails to fail.

FOX31 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne was the first to discover this pattern. In a series of reports, Halsne exposed how CDOT has been installing some end cap terminals onto slider rails made from “incompatible parts.”

CDOT inspectors have already discovered at least 144 guardrail systems which were incorrectly installed.

This statewide investigation was sparked by an accident in which a Fort Collins woman was crushed by a piece of guardrail during an accident along I-25 near Johnstown in June.

Kristen Gerhard`s SUV hit an end cap terminal, designed to cushion her car when hit, which instead tore free, jammed up, and ripped a piece of rail through her door.

Her foot was crushed. After four surgeries and a skin graft, surgeons were able to save it.

She had no idea, until the FOX31 investigative team proved it, that CDOT was responsible for installing a guardrail system with mix and match, incompatible parts.

“Unfortunately that happens too often: Somebody has to get hurt before the attention is drawn to the safety measures and in this case it was me,” Gerhard told Halsne. “I thank God I survived and I`m so happy to be able to help.”

Engineers, working with FOX31, helped identify a serious flaw in the way CDOT was making repairs to some previously damaged guardrails.

The end cap terminal involved in Gerhard`s accident was made by Road Systems Incorporated and the all-important first-rail slider by it`s competitor, Trinity Highways.

After FOX31 pointed out that mistake (and others), CDOT opened a full-scale investigation and found nearly 200 other potentially deadly, incorrectly installed sections of guardrail all over Colorado.

The state inspection is about halfway completed, according to Bhatt.

“We are not here to assign blame,” said Bhatt. “We`re here to find out what went wrong and fix it so we don`t do that again in the future.”

Bhatt, along with personnel from the Federal Highway Administration, called a press conference Tuesday to announce they`ve already determined this is not just a local safety issue.

“I have sent out an email to all of my colleagues in other states,” Bhatt annouced. “We`ve talked to a couple of other states that are dealing with this and we`ll go through and sort of have a systematic approach to fix this.”

Federal Highway Administration Division Chief, John Cater, said the mismatched parts issue was unknown until the FOX31 reports.

Gerhard says she is “blown away” that after months of being ignored by CDOT, she is now being heard.

“I`m really glad they are taking some action and hopefully they are going to own up to it. Maybe make it right,” Gerhard said after the press conference.

Bhatt admitted to reporters that during Gerhard`s crash, the guardrail system did not perform the way it was supposed to.

CDOT has a long-standing policy in place which requires it conduct a safety inspection on all guardrail systems when they are installed. Halsne asked some pointed questions about, if that was the case, how inspectors could have missed such critical errors.

It turns out, when CDOT was repairing a damaged guardrail, that inspection process was not happening.

The state also announced it is immediately implementing an entirely new safety system because of the FOX31 findings.

Inspectors have decided to take pictures of all of this state's 42,000 end cap terminals and archive those (perhaps even color coding them), so in the future, the wrong terminal cannot be paired with the wrong rail.