IDAHO, USA — When Steve Eimers lost his daughter in 2016 after her car collided with a guardrail, he made it his mission to honor her by investigating guardrails all over the United States. After pressure from Eimers, the Idaho Transportation Department revealed they are now inspecting the state's thousands of guardrails for safety concerns.
Eimers lost his 17-year-old daughter, Hannah Eimers, on Nov. 1, 2016 when her car collided with the end of a guardrail in Tennessee. The guardrail speared her car, and her.
Eimers knew something didn't seem right, so he sued the manufacturer over its design. The case came to a "satisfactory conclusion," he said. (Court records indicate there is no evidence showing the guardrail that impaled Hannah's car was installed with improperly.)
"I want to ensure that nobody faces the horror that I wake up to every day by being the parent of a dead child that was mutilated by a guardrail," Eimers said.
He speaks with politicians and transportation department leaders all over the United States in order to bring awareness to guardrail end terminals that may not be installed correctly. Some are referred to as "Frankensteined guardrails" because they are guardrails built with mixed parts and Eimers says they create a monster on our roadsides. He found other guardrails that are installed upside down, backwards or are a missing a bolt or contain a bolt in the wrong place.
Guardrails are originally meant to protect people from sliding off embankments, hitting trees or bridges, or driving into a river.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, energy absorbing guardrails have an "impact head" which slides down the guardrail when hit by a car.
A car could hit the guardrail head-on and the impact head would flatten the guardrail and redirect the rail away from the car until the car stops. If the car hits the rail at an angle, the head could also flatten the guardrail in a way where the car will slow down behind the rail.
If none of that happens, the rail could potentially impale the car -- a red flag for Eimers, since guardrail manufacturers warn against mixing parts to avoid serious injury or death doesn't happen.
Trinity Highway Products, now rebranded as Valtir, says the failure to follow the warning of mixed parts could result in "serious injury or death in the event of a vehicle impact with a system that has not been accepted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA)."
The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) standards regarding guardrails also tell crews to install the rails the way the manufacturers instruct them to. Those systems passed crash tests and the FHA approved them.
But, after diligent research, Eimers said he came across 28 "Frankensteined guardrails" on I-84 in Idaho alone. One guardrail that seems to be installed incorrectly, according to Eimers, is near the Boise Outlet Mall. Several miles west on I-84 from that guardrail, in Caldwell, is one of the worst guardrails Eimers said he has ever seen.
"The problem was so overwhelming and dangerous in the state of Idaho," Eimers said. "I started seeing a pattern of impact heads from one manufacturer being installed with rails from another manufacturer. I was seeing a lot of Trinity Slotted Rail Terminals where the second rail was installed upside down and backwards. And as I began seeing this, and then I saw it again and again, I realized this is really severe."
According to ITD records, four people in Idaho died between 2017 and 2021 after their car hit a guardrail end terminal, but ITD says there is no evidence through crash or police reports showing the guardrail itself is what killed them.
"When somebody can make that many mistakes, we're dealing with a lack of inspections, lack of oversight from ITD, with a lack of training of the installers and contractors. And that's a very expensive mistake because we're talking about expensive guardrail systems," Eimers said. "We have to make sure these devices that we're paying for with our state tax dollars or federal aid dollars are being properly installed. Otherwise, we are misappropriating tens of millions of dollars annually and killing people on our roadsides."
So what did Eimers do? He pressured the Idaho Transportation Department to look at every guardrail end terminal in the state. And ITD says it listened.
John Tomlinson, ITD's communications manager, said that the department is now doing inventory on the entire statewide guardrail system.
"We want to make sure that they're properly installed, that they're safe. Anytime we have damage to a guardrail, at the ends there -- what we're doing is we're making sure that they are installed properly, that if there is damage, that we want to get on it right away. We want to fix it. And we want to make sure that we fix it right," Tomlinson said.
In October, he said, crews began looking more deeply into the 10,000 guardrail ends, which are spread out on more than 900 miles of guardrail on state-owned roads.
If ITD finds issues with guardrail ends, Tomlinson says they'll fix them.
"And then just making sure that we have the proper channels of communication when it comes to our maintenance foreman getting it down to the maintenance crews, our contractors, everybody coming together, because we want to just make sure that it's safe," Tomlinson added.
RailCo LLC from Meridian contracts with ITD to install and repair guardrails in Idaho. RailCo's owner, Kevin Wade, said the mixing of parts on "Frankentsteined" guardrails or improper installation could happen if ITD isn't inspecting their crews' maintenance work.
When asked why they are installing or repairing guardrails wrong, Tomlinson said it could be due to a backlog of supplies.
Investigating the thousands of guardrails and issuing possible repairs will take time -- and money. ITD won't find out how much repairs cost until they are done taking inventory.
"We have to make sure we have the funds to be able to do that. But it's important -- if it's something that's that's causing people to lose their lives or get seriously injured, then then we are all about making any changes that need to be made," Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson added that they are aware of some "breakaway end treatments" that they "want to modify" and will continue taking inventory of the entire state highway system over the next few months.
Again, he says they are not aware of any of these end treatments not working properly during a crash.
KTVB reached out to Idaho Governor Brad Little on the issue. His press secretary, Madison Hardy, said that Little has been working with the legislature to pass transportation funding packages addressing safety gaps.
"Promoting the safety and prosperity of Idahoans continues to be a priority for Governor Little, whose 2023 legislative priorities include directing more than $1 billion toward new and ongoing transportation safety investments," Hardy wrote via email.
In the end, Eimers will continue working with lawmakers and transportation departments to honor his daughter, scoping out guardrails and making phone calls to anyone who can help.
He not only wants to solve the issue of dangerous guardrails, but Eimers says he wants to change transportation departments' internal cultures so they prioritize safety. He's working to get state departments of transportation, the FHA and guardrail manufacturers to come out with stronger, unified guidance. He is also working to get manufacturers to add "this side up" stickers or color-coded labels to their systems.
"Please don't make an Idaho family be where I'm at," Eimers said. "You don't have to have somebody in Idaho die."
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