BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) – The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) now says it’s enhancing training for inspectors and prioritizing inspection of as many as 10,000 guardrails statewide after complaints from a safety advocate and questions from News Channel 11.

On Thursday, VDOT confirmed it had replaced 18 guardrail end terminals on Interstate 81 between Bristol and Marion, Virginia.

The replacements came after an East Tennessee highway safety advocate spotted terminals with significant rust and metal loss. Steve Eimers said he documented about 20 terminals with visible damage and sent the list to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

A guardrail end terminal on Interstate 81 near Bristol, VA has significant rust and missing metal.

“These are not crashworthy, and we don’t know how these would perform in a crash,” he told News Channel 11. Eimers worried the guardrail end terminals, which are meant to absorb a head-on crash and peel the guardrail away from a crashing car, were potentially unsafe because of age and damage.

After his complaints and questions from News Channel, VDOT replaced a total of 18 terminals along I-81 between Bristol and Marion “out of an abundance of caution,” a VDOT spokesman said.

Eimers applauded VDOT for taking action. To him, it’s another victory for the traveling public in his new role as a highway traffic safety advocate – a role that began after the death of his daughter Hannah in 2017.

Her car hit a guardrail on an interstate near Knoxville and the rail impaled her car. Eimers sued the manufacturer and said he’s only allowed to say that the lawsuit has now reached a “satisfactory conclusion.”

Now he travels the country advocating for highway traffic safety improvements.

“[It doesn’t] ever make the loss of Hannah worth it, but I see good things come out of it. In all things, it works together for good.”

Eimers suspects the rusty guardrails replaced by VDOT in the Bristol district may be two decades old, and he speculates the rust may have been caused by extensive exposure to weather as well as road salt and brine.

News Channel 11 asked VDOT how old the terminals are. So far, the agency says that’s still being determined.

“We have retained 18 recently replaced terminals in the Bristol district and are working to identify the lot numbers,” said Marshall Herman, VDOT spokesman. Herman said the manufacturer can use the lot numbers to determine age if they are still visible on the product.

VDOT released this image of a replaced guardrail terminal on Interstate 81 South near Marion. (Photo: VDOT)

Eimers says that information should be known immediately, and the terminals should previously have been identified for replacement by VDOT through its maintenance program.

“We don’t know what we have, and we don’t know where it is,” he said, referring to VDOT and state departments of transportation across the United States. “We don’t know the condition [of highway safety equipment]. VDOT is in the top 10 percent of the nation trying. And we’re not doing what we need to be doing in Virginia.”

Eimers says VDOT needs to see the Bristol-area guardrail replacements as a wake-up call. “VDOT needs to inspect every inch of state DOT roadways,” he said. “Ultimately, they need to inspect every terminal in the state.”

So far, VDOT has not said that will happen.

“VDOT has programs to replace damaged guardrails as well as a risk-based program to replace a certain number of older terminals each year,” Herman said. “The agency also is assessing information on factors that may accelerate deterioration of terminals in certain locations of the commonwealth and will determine if additional attention needs to be focused on terminals in those areas. We will look for opportunities through our routine maintenance activities to identify any additional locations for replacements as appropriate.”

But on Thursday, VDOT seemed to go a step further saying that, in addition to ongoing inspection and replacement programs, VDOT would enhance training for inspectors and prioritize inspections for terminals like the ones just replaced near Bristol and Marion.

VDOT estimates there are approximately 150,000 existing guardrail terminals on the Commonwealth’s state maintained highway system. The agency is actively investigating ways for continuous improvement of its inspection processes for guardrails, which will include enhanced training for inspectors.

VDOT will prioritize terminals of similar shape to those that have been identified, (approximately 10,000), for inspection.

VDOT will continue to work the agency’s existing guardrail management programs, which include a risk-based approach in determining guardrail terminal replacements. The agency will incorporate the findings from our enhanced guardrail inspections into these programs.

Marshall Herman, VDOT

Eimers said that’s encouraging news. “We need to know what we have on the roads, and we need to know when we put it in, what the condition is, whether its obsolete, whether it’s damaged,” he said. “We need to be monitoring performance.”