DOT vows to replace dangerous guardrails

Georgia’s Department of Transportation will develop an inventory system to locate and replace deadly and outdated guardrail ends, after a Channel 2 Action News investigation found them all over Georgia’s roads.

The breakaway cable terminals, or BCT’s, are so dangerous, the federal government told states to remove them back in the 1990s. But Channel 2 mapped more than 300 still in use.

The BCT covers the sharp end of the guardrail and is supposed to steer your car away, not spear right through it.

But several Georgia families say it’s instead slicing through cars and killing drivers.

Even the emergency crews couldn’t believe it when they rolled up Jacob Spradley’s wreck along I-20 in Warren County 100 miles east of Atlanta in November 2013. The giant metal guardrail had sliced right into his car, straight through Spradley and his passenger.

“I would not look at the pictures of the vehicle, I didn’t want to see it,” said Spradley’s mother Vicki Spradley. “It cut him, pretty much cut him in half.”

She described her son as outgoing and friendly. He had just gotten a new job and a new-found friendship with his mom.

“The last couple months was the best months of my life with him,” said Spradley. “I didn’t know what to think. It didn’t make sense.”

She said she believes Jacob may have fallen asleep at the wheel. His car left the roadway and spun into the BCT, a rounded piece of metal located at the end of the guardrail.

What his mom did not know, was that the BCT should not have even been there.

Dr. Dean Sicking invented six of the nine types of guardrail ends in use today. He authored the current national guidelines for safety hardware, and sat on the committee which banned further purchase of BCT’s in 1994.

“I know that they were killing hundreds of people per year back when they were widely used,” Sicking told Channel 2.

In 1998, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued a safety memo telling states, “BCT’s should now be replaced” due to “unacceptable passenger compartment intrusion.” It also noted BCT’s are “too stiff” to protect drivers.

“I fought long and hard to get the BCT in a category that it had to be replaced under any maintenance, because I knew it was a very dangerous system and needed to be taken out,” said Sicking.

But FHWA stopped short of requiring states to immediately find and remove all BCT’s, instead allowing the replacements to happen gradually as departments of transportation completed routine roadwork.

“I would like to think they’re following the FHWA advice that any time they do any significant pavement maintenance, they’ll bring all safety hardware up to current standards,” added Sicking. “And if they’re doing that then there shouldn’t be that many out there.”

Georgia’s DOT Commissioner Keith Golden said he couldn’t say how many BCT’s remained on Georgia’s roads today.

“I couldn’t give you an exact number,” said Golden, admitting his department keeps no records of which type of guardrail ends Georgia has, and where.

“I would say there are very few, there may be a few out there they’ve been missed, but I would venture to say most of them have been caught and repaired,” Golden continued.

In fact, Channel 2 found more than 300 BCT’s all over Georgia’s highways, including I-75 and I-285 in Cobb County, I-675 in DeKalb County and I-985 in Hall County.

Channel 2 shared the map with Golden and asked why so many BCT’s could still be found on Georgia’s roadways, 16 years after FHWA issued a safety memo about them.

“You can’t go out and do it overnight,” Golden replied. “In the transportation world that’s not necessarily that long of a time.”

Channel 2 also found several BCT’s that had clearly been hit along 316 in Gwinnett County, but had yet to be replaced.

On Buford Highway in Atlanta, two BCT’s sat just feet from others that have been replaced.

Crews clearly missed a few on I-20 in Douglas County, where a fresh asphalt project just finished.

“There’s many places we haven’t made any transportation investments in terms of what would be referred to as the ‘3Rs’ — repaving, resurfacing, rehabilitation of those roads,” said Golden, citing the specific kinds of projects that require the guardrails be upgraded.

He said the rules allow some exceptions, and with tight budgets GDOT may have skipped some.

But Golden did ask for a copy of the map Channel 2 compiled.

“If we missed something in projects, or if we haven’t gotten to those things or if it meets the criteria, we want to address it,” said Golden.

Vicki Spradley said it’s too late for her son Jacob, but GDOT should be doing more.

“I just don’t understand how hard it is to fix something, especially when it comes to human life. Go out there and find them,” she said.

Two weeks after Golden’s interview, a GDOT spokesperson contacted Channel 2 to say the commissioner had done some additional research, and decided take action.

He vowed to send crews around the state to seek out the remaining BCT’s and create a timeline to replace them all. The replacements will be prioritized based on traffic volume on each road.

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Jodie Fleischer is an investigative reporter with Channel 2 Action News.