Critics concerned about string of crashes involving type of North Carolina highway guardrail

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- It was just after midnight one morning last January. Jay Traylor was driving his Isuzu Trooper on Interstate 40 west near Hillsborough. He would later tell an emergency operator that he'd been working long hours and was tired. Traylor fell asleep at the wheel and his truck plowed head-on into a guardrail. What happened next wasn't supposed to.

"I lost my legs in a wreck," Traylor told the 911 operator.

"Sir?" asked the operator.

"I'm going to die. I lost my legs," Traylor moaned. "I'm going unconscious."

The guardrail had impaled Traylor's vehicle. The end terminal - the 'end cap' - didn't work like it's supposed to and a piece of the metal bar cut through the Isuzu Trooper and cut Traylor, basically, in half.

"Blood is going out too fast. Ma'am, I can tell you right now I am not going to make it," Traylor told the emergency operator on a 14 minute phone call he made from his cell phone. "I'm not kidding you. I have lost both legs. I am not going to make it. I am so sorry."

Traylor went on about what had happened.

"As I saw it coming through, I lifted up out of the chair, which spared the guardrail from going through my abdomen but beneath my buttocks instead and took my right leg off and half of my left one."

Traylor's accident is just one in a string of crashes involving what's called an ET-Plus guardrail. North Carolina has some 10,000 of them on the road.

"So far, we're only talking about a very small number of wrecks where this has occurred," said Kevin Lacy, the NCDOT Chief Engineer for the State Dept of Transportation. The I-Team showed Lacy the pictures of Traylor's accident and asked if he had any second thoughts about their safety on state roads.

"Every product, regardless of what you pick, has failure points," Lacy said. "We have an approved product by the Federal Highway Administration and they say it's an acceptable product."

Lacy gave the I-Team a letter from the federal government saying the ET-Plus guardrails meet crash test standards. He said the State DOT has no intention of replacing them.

The guardrail's manufacturer, Trinity Highway Products, is involved in a lawsuit brought by a competitor in 2012, alleging the ET-Plus is a danger to motorists. Trinity says that's not true.

In an email sent to the I-Team, the company acknowledged that it did reduce the width of the guardrail's guide channel by an inch (part of the allegations), but said crash tests done in 2005 by the Texas Transportation Institute show the guardrails meet government safety standards.

Jay Traylor is also suing the maker of these guardrail end terminals that severed his legs.

And the Federal Highway Administration is now backing a national study conducted by public and private engineers to get to the bottom of why these guardrails aren't holding up in some accidents.

"What if somebody was to hydroplane with their family in the car and hit one?" Traylor asked. "That's worst-case scenario and a lot of people ain't going home."

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