A guardrail end terminal long deemed unsafe by federal regulators was involved in a fatal crash Aug. 8 in Mount Airy.
The wreck occurred as the vehicle, heading north on U.S. 52 veered off the right shoulder while exiting onto Interstate 74 and struck a guardrail, according to the highway patrol report.
EMS officials at the scene said the guardrail smashed through the passenger compartment of the vehicle, penetrating inside and pinning two people.
James Thomas McGregor, 73, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, seated in the passenger seat, was pronounced dead on the scene.
His wife, Judith McGregor, 65, was critically injured and was upgraded to fair condition as of Wednesday.
The highway patrol report states that the driver, William Anthony Morgano, stated he fell asleep while driving. Morgano was charged with careless and reckless driving.
“We’ve had several incidences of that that have ended in catastrophe,” said John Shelton, director of Surry County Emergency Services, referring to where the guardrail dangerously penetrates the car rather than absorbing or bending the energy from impact.
A similar incident occurred in Stokes County in November 2014, when a vehicle crashed into a guardrail on U.S. 52, killing two sisters.
Shelton made a call to North Carolina Department of Transportation engineers to make a formal request that the guardrail in Surry County be redesigned when repaired or replaced, which it turns out is standard DOT procedure.
“Everything that’s damaged we bring it up to the current standard,” said Brandon Whitaker, NCDOT district engineer.
The guardrail and end terminal was replaced last week with an upgraded model of end terminal and the section of rail lengthened.
“When we went and looked at it we felt like that guardrail should be extended to close the opening so no one can go on and go down the embankment toward U.S. 52,” Whitaker said.
Breakaway Cable Terminals
The guardrail end terminal model on the piece of rail involved in both wrecks was a type called a Breakaway Cable Terminal (BCT), according to Steve Abbott, an NCDOT spokesperson.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) identified BCTs as unsafe in the early 1990s, but didn’t recommend a wholesale replacement of the units and still hasn’t officially mandated one, although their postition has evolved.
A 1994 memo from the FHWA to regional administrators stated that because BCT had failed high-speed, head-on crash tests it would no longer be acceptable for installation starting the next year, and that existing BCTs should be upgraded when damaged or with regularly scheduled roadwork.
A 1998 memo updated their position on the BCTs: “Also, a change from the guidance in the FHWA memorandum ‘Traffic Barrier Safety Policy and Guidance’ dated September 29, 1994, is that existing Breakaway Cable Terminals (BCT’s) should now be replaced with end treatments meeting NCHRP 350 criteria in conjunction with 3R work. A recent NCHRP Report 350 head-on test of the BCT with an 820-kg car at the test level 2 (TL-2) impact speed of 70 km/h resulted in unacceptable passenger compartment intrusion indicating clearly that the BCT is too stiff to accommodate end-on hits, even at reduced speeds.”
A memo from 2015 to division administrators states: “It has been more than twenty years since that memo was issued and devices listed in that memo are still in service,” and urges a systematic upgrading of obsolete terminals.
None of the NCDOT officials contacted knew of any plans in the state or locally for a systematic replacement.
“We don’t upgrade anything unless it’s been damaged or unless it’s a new construction project,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker and Abbott said finding and replacing every outdated guardrail end terminal in the state would be too costly and logistically challenging.
Abbott clarified that the passenger door area “is the least protected area of the vehicle. The side, which doesn’t have the engine block or bumper protection of the other parts of a vehicle, is not subject to guardrail end testing under Federal Highway Administration guidelines.”
Other conditions such as speed of the vehicle and angle of impact are also factors, Abbott said.
Those types of real world conditions that aren’t covered by crash testing are being studied by a government task force as well as independent research bodies.
Terri Flagg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-415-4734.