GAO Calls for Stronger FHWA Oversight of Guardrails, Transition to New Standards

AASHTO Journal, 15 July 2016

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, called in a recent report for stronger federal oversight of roadside guardrails that are meant to reduce injuries and deaths from traffic crashes in which vehicles move out of the roadway.

The report, conducted in response to a congressional request, did not specifically address issues related to Trinity Industries’ ET-Plus guardrail end terminal systems that have been the subject of litigation and a special round of crash tests.

But in explaining the origins of this audit, the GAO said that in 2014 a full 54 percent of U.S. traffic deaths occurred when a vehicle left the road. It noted that in recent years “a number of serious injuries and deaths resulted from crashes into roadside safety hardware,” so the GAO was tasked with reviewing the Federal Highway Administration’s oversight of such hardware.

The report’s title – “More Robust DOT Oversight of Guardrails and Other Roadside Hardware Could Further Enhance Safety” – sums up the GAO’s view that the U.S. Department of Transportation needs to take additional steps to bolster its safety mission for the devices.

The GAO said the FHWA oversees and promotes states’ installation of crash-tested safety hardware. And the FHWA, in partnership with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, recently established a schedule for state departments of transportation to install guardrails that meet updated standards from the “Manual for Assessing Safety Hardware.”

But it said that “some inconsistencies across state practices exist, and states’ movement to require installation of devices successfully tested to updated, improved crash test standards . . . has been slow.”

The FHWA, the report continued, “currently does not have a monitoring plan to report on progress to meeting the established dates” to transition to MASH-standards equipment. “Monitoring and reporting would allow FHWA to keep decision-makers aware of progress and position FHWA to take corrective actions as needed.”

However, the report noted that the FHWA “has contracted for a full examination of its roadside safety hardware oversight processes and expects a report with recommendations for potential changes to these processes” later this summer.

The GAO also said that “six of the nine accredited U.S. crash test laboratories evaluate products that were developed by employees of the parent organization,” a situation the auditors called “a potential threat to lab independence.” The FHWA, the report added, “relies heavily on the labs to make a pass/fail determination” of products they test.

It said some other federal agencies require third-party verification of test results of labs they deal with, but that the FHWA does not have such a process. “Developing a process for third-party verification of roadside safety hardware’s lab test results could provide greater assurance that potential threats to independence are fully addressed,” the GAO said.

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