Expert: ‘Haunting’ Hawaii crash caught on camera underscores dangers of antiquated guardrails
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Aging guardrails along Hawaii’s roadways could pose a serious danger to drivers, an HNN Investigation revealed.
The barriers are intended to keep vehicles from running off the road.
But safety experts say the vast majority of Hawaii’s guardrails are too low and weren’t designed to handle a collision with many of the larger vehicles on the road today.
It’s a problem that federal transportation officials have advised the state to fix.
HNN Investigates started looking into the issue following a frightening crash several weeks ago.
On June 16, a vehicle’s camera captured the moment a pick-up traveling west on the Moanalua Freeway near Red Hill lost control. The driver veered across two lanes of traffic before going airborne, launching over the guardrail, and disappearing down a steep embankment.
“The vehicle mounted the rail and just kept going,” said safety advocate Steve Eimers. “The thing that’s so haunting about the video is you can see the individual in that driver’s seat.”
A similar image is forever ingrained in Elmers’ mind.
“In 2016, my wife and I, we lost our oldest daughter Hannah when she was speared in a guardrail crash,” Eimers said. “We know the loss. When I started investigating what happened I saw an industry that was just largely unregulated. It was like the wild, wild West.”
Over the past seven years, the Knoxville father has become a guardrail expert and reviewed scores of crashes across the country.
He found many collisions have something in common: “Very old and obsolete guardrail,” he said.
The Federal Highway Administration defines a guardrail as a safety barrier intended to shield a motorist who has left the roadway.
Experts say its height, along with the depth of the posts and type of washers used to fasten it all together, play a major role in controlling which direction a vehicle will go.
Crash tests show guardrails that are 31 inches tall perform best in collisions with today’s vehicles. With older, lower guardrails, there’s a higher chance of drivers going over top of the barrier.
The research prompted the federal government to advise states to increase the standard height of guardrails from 27 to 31 inches. But several years after the recommendation was made, HNN found nearly 90% of the 400 miles of guardrail along Hawaii’s roadways still doesn’t meet that standard.
That includes the stretch of road at the site of the recent crash.
HNN asked state Department of Transportation Director Ed Sniffen if the guardrail in the Moanalua Freeway crash worked the way it was intended to. He responded, “Yes and no.”
The 27-inch steel guardrail along that section of tfreeway was installed more than 50-years-ago.
When HNN visited the site, we found some areas where guardrail height appeared to be even lower. One section just a little ways down the road measured about 26 inches.
Shiffen said the shorter guardrail was designed for smaller, lighter weight vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 50 mph. “They’re rated for an impact of a vehicle between 1,800 to 2,000 pounds for a car. And between 3,500 to 4,000 pounds for a truck,” Sniffen said.
According to the EPA, the lightest vehicles on the market today are sedans — with an average weight of about 3,500 pounds. Meanwhile, today’s pick-up trucks weigh an average of 5,250 pounds — or 1,200 pounds more than what most Hawaii guardrails are designed for.
Eimers said the crash in Honolulu is “exactly” what the federal government warned states about. “The warnings are there saying, hey, these can override.” Meanwhile, he added, testing conducted at the University of Nebraska shows the modern 31-inch guardrail with enhanced safety features can help prevent rollover crashes like the one involving the pickup that happened in June.
“Typically on side impact like that, or impact on the guardrail face, you want to see the rail release from the posts, then contain the vehicle and redirect it,” Eimers said.
“It will kind of hold it up against the rail. And bring it to a controlled stop.”
Sniffen said he “absolutely agreed” that 31-inch guardrails are safer. But he added, “I would also say that if vehicles stay within the speed limit, there’s a lot better chance of staying on the roadway.”
Sniffen also said a policy was put into place in 2019 to ensure anytime DOT starts significant roadway work in a corridor, the state will also replace all of the guardrails and concrete barriers.
That means progress on revamp guardrails is slow.
Of Hawaii’s 400 miles of guardrail, only about 50 miles currently meet the 31-inch standard.
DOT says between one and five miles of guardrail is being replaced a year.
Officials estimate it will take at least a decade to replace all the old barriers — at a cost $400 million.
It’s a project Eimers would like to see fast-tracked.
“It could be your child you’re protecting. It could be your own life,” he said adding, “We need to learn from these videos. Don’t just be entertained by them.”
The driver of that truck that plunged off the Moanalua Freeway in June managed to survive the crash without any serious injuries. The DOT said that it’s waiting to make any changes to the guardrail in that area until an investigation into the crash is complete.
Here’s a list of all the places in Hawaii where 31-inch guardrail has been installed:
- Paauilo - Route 19, MP 36 to 38
- HSIP 0190 (017) – Route 190, MP 4 to 5.5
- Pahoa – Route 130, MP 15.28 to 15.52 (emergency)
- Volcano – Route 11, MP 29.15 to 29.33 (emergency)
- Route 61 (Pali Highway) - Vineyard Blvd to Waokanaka Street
- Route 72 (Kalanianaole Highway) - Poalima Street to Bellows Airforce Starion (Tucker Rd) and Milepost 5.714 to 7.321 (Makai Pier)
- Route 83 (Kamehameha Highway)
- Area of Kaipapau Stream Bridge
- Milepost 7.007
- Milepost 7.275 – 7.353
- Milepost 8.490 – 8.518
- Milepost 8.860 – 8.877
- Milepost 9.183 – 9.217
- Milepost 9.551 – 9.700
- Route 93 (Farrington Highway)
- Makaha Bridge #3 - #3A
- Milepost 14.088 – 14.119
- Milepost 14.518 – 14.544
- Milepost 14.927 – 14.951
- Milepost 15.599 – 15.802
- Milepost 16.301 – 17.113
- Milepost 17.615 – 19.517 (Satellite Tracking Station Road)
- H-1 Freeway
- End of Waialae Viaduct to Kapakahi Bridge
- Milepost .010 - .074
- Milepost 5.410 – 6.800
- Milepost 7.474 (Exit 7 Waikele) – MI 8.850
- H-2 Freeway
- Wahiawa Interchange to Waiawa Interchange
- Route 78
- Milepost 0.00 – 0.74
- Route 30 - 4.5 miles
- Route 31 - 3.4 miles
- Route 37 - 2 miles
- Route 340 – 0.2 miles
- Route 50 0.33 miles
- Route 56 0.36 miles
- Route 580 0.03 miles
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