• 9 Investigates: When guardrails fail

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    ORLANDO, Fla. - Highway guardrails are supposed to protect you if you get into an accident while driving. A guardrail’s structural integrity could mean the difference between life and death.

    But 9 Investigates learned the Florida Department of Transportation is using inmates to replace old and damaged guardrails, and a Lake County man said those inmates made big mistakes that ultimately cost him his leg.

    Channel 9’s Vanessa Welch discovered the problem is much broader than this one case.

    Guardrails are designed and tested to protect you during a crash, but crash photos show how one of the roadside devices sliced through the vehicle Charlie Pike was traveling in as a passenger in another man’s pickup truck.

    The Lake County man slammed into a guardrail head-on to avoid hitting an animal on State Road 33 near the Groveland Airport.

    The guardrail their vehicle struck had been repaired, but it still pierced through the truck and sliced Pike’s left leg to the bone. Doctors had to amputate, and two years later he's still fighting to recover.

    “They used the wrong parts to reinstall the guardrail,” said Pike’s attorney, Ted Leopold, during a recent interview with Welch.

    And he said the wrong parts are only half the story. His lawsuit claims state prisoners incorrectly repaired the guardrail.

    “It’s not only dangerous, it's life threatening,” Leopold said.

    He said to make matters worse, after Pike’s accident, the guardrail was repaired incorrectly again.

    “If there was another accident, the same thing was going to happen,” he said.

    Leopold gave the state a picture showing how workers bolted a cable system to the guardrail. Experts said the bolts keep the end terminal from moving away from the car in an accident. Instead of protecting drivers, the guardrail becomes a dangerous weapon.   

    “Are inmates still repairing these guardrails?” Welch asked.

    “It is my understanding they are,” Leopold told her. 

    The Department of Transportation wouldn’t comment on the Pike case but confirmed that state Department of Corrections inmates replaced about half the old and damaged guardrails in central Florida last year.

    9 Investigates obtained a state contract showing FDOT plans to pay $19 million to use state inmates for labor maintenance this year.

    Guardrail manufacturer Trinity Industries is also under fire for narrowing the metal at the end of its guardrails from 5 inches to 4. While not named in Pike’s case, other lawsuits link Trinity’s products to deaths and injuries in at least 14 accidents in the United States.        

    Video animation shows how the guardrail is supposed to buckle and ribbon to absorb a car’s impact. But safety experts said Trinity’s new design causes it to lock up and slice through the car.

    “What this means for motorists is an increased risk of death or injury if you hit one of these things,” said Sean Kane, an auto safety expert familiar with the cases.

    Trinity was just found liable for keeping its design change a secret and was ordered to pay the government $175 million.

    Trinity said it has full confidence in its product but stopped shipping the ET-Plus system while it's being tested by the government.

    As for the Florida inmates, FDOT said supervisors make sure their work meets standards.

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