DENVER - The Colorado Department of Transportation has ordered an immediate check of 42,000 guardrails on Colorado highways, to determine if there is an appropriate match between the guardrails and the attached end caps or terminals.
The mandate comes on the heels of a local television report highlighting problems with a guardrail at mile marker 252 on Interstate 25 near Johnstown.
A driver was injured after striking that guardrail last June.
“Guardrails are designed to stop and deflect a vehicle,” said CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt. “In the case of Ms. (Kristen) Gerhard, the guardrail, instead of diverting and deflecting, actually penetrated the cabin and caused her significant injury.”
Bhatt told Denver7 that the guardrail was installed correctly, but had subsequently been hit and repaired.
He said Colorado uses four different types of guardrails, and that in the past, work crews would simply replace a damaged section or an end cap with one that fit, thinking that the parts were interchangeable.
They are not.
“When (the guardrail near Johnstown) was struck in 2014, our crews went out there and kept the end cap, but put a Trinity guard rail in place,” he said. “So those two pieces fit together… but they do not actually function in a crash the way they are supposed to.”
Bhatt says CDOT is now checking all guardrails on its system to make sure they match with the appropriate end cap.
He said they’re halfway done and have found 144 instances where there was not an appropriate match, which is less than one percent of all guardrails on state-maintained highways.
Bhatt said they’re in the process of fixing those issues and that interstate highways are the top priority.
The CDOT head said it’s a matter of moving end caps from one guardrail where they don’t match, to another guardrail where they do.
He said he doesn’t know how long it will take to finish the job, but will have a better idea in about a week.
Bhatt said other states and cities may be dealing with the same issue. He said CDOT wants to share and receive “best practices” with those jurisdictions.
He said, as work crews check guardrails, they will paint mile marker numbers on each one, snap photos and send them to CDOT headquarters, where they will be kept in a database.
Bhatt also said they’ll try to figure out ways to make it easier for highway crews to find the correct piece when repairs are needed.
“We may color-code the pieces,” he said.
CDOT says there are approximately 120,000 crashes in Colorado each year and that 1,500 of them involved guardrails.
Guardrail designs have changed dramatically over the years.
When they were first installed, they were just blunt points, without endcaps, Bhatt said.
Later on, guardrails were installed with the ends tucked into the ground, but Bhatt said some cars hit the ends and road up onto the guardrails.
He said the most recent approved design involves the end cap, which absorbs some of the impact.
He said the June accident near Johnstown shows that one system doesn’t work with the other, that the end caps have to match up with the guardrail they were designed for.