CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thousands of guardrails line North Carolina's state highways, but a WCNC Charlotte investigation found some of those safety devices are potentially dangerous because of the way it's installed.
The so-called "Frankensteined guardrails" are assembled using mismatched parts from different manufacturers, which are not tested for use.
"It creates a safety monster, and it's been associated with multiple fatalities," safety advocate Steve Eimers said. "We've seen these mismatched systems kill and maim people all across the country."
Hunter Burns is one of those people. The 22-year-old died in a crash in Florida in 2020 involving a "Frankensteined guardrail". WCNC Charlotte's content partner in Tampa, Florida, spoke with his parents,
"It's hard to be strong, and it's hard to talk about him," his father Mike DeFilippo said.
"Hunter was the most amazing human," his mother Christy added. "He just lit up the room when he walked in. He had the biggest personality. He was loved by so many people."
Eimers found an improperly installed guardrail along Billy Graham Parkway in Charlotte that he said "is very similar" to the one that killed Burns.
"This is a lot worse than I thought initially," Eimers said of the guardrail. "This is just completely and totally wrong."
"What happens if a car hits that guardrail?" WCNC Charlotte asked Eimers.
"We have no clue what's going to happen here," Eimers responded. "Given what I've seen in similar type setups, we are likely to see a very negative outcome."
Following reporting by WCNC Charlotte's content partner stations WTSP 10 Tampa Bay in Tampa, WUSA 9 in Washington, D.C., and WXIA 11 Alive in Atlanta, Georgia, several states have started inspecting and/or replacing guardrails.
In Georgia, the state action followed the 2020 death of Isabella Alonzo. Her parents said a "Frankensteined guardrail" impaled the 18-year-old's car. She died on March 1, 2020 -- the same day Burns passed away.
"It's just devastating," her mother Cathy Alonzo said. "We lost a child. Her brothers lost a sister. Her grandparents, her friends. People really loved her. How did this even happen? How are you just driving down the road, and, all of a sudden, your car is impaled by a guardrail?"
Florida's review followed Burns' death and a separate 2010 crash involving Charlie Pike, who said a "Frankensteined guardrail" left him without a leg.
"To my understanding, guardrails are supposed to crumble like an accordion, kind of give cushion," Pike said. "This thing impaled the truck like a harpoon."
In response to WCNC Charlotte's reporting, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has pledged to repair the guardrails Eimers flagged.
"If we are aware of it, yes, we will fix it," NCDOT Director of Strategic Planning and Programming Kevin Lacy said.
Lacy said the agency is now also planning additional training for its employees and contractors, noting some of the guardrails were installed decades ago.
"You're going to have folks who do make mistakes or piece together them, because in the past it was acceptable to piece together guardrail components," Lacy said.
He added guardrail companies stipulated to states to only use manufacturer's parts when repairing guardrails in the late '90s, so that the companies' warranties would remain valid.
However, since NCDOT is responsible for more miles of roadway than any other state in the United States except Texas, Lacy said the agency is better off spending its limited dollars replacing outdated (or obsolete) guardrails, rather than scouring the state for improperly assembled ones.
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"We do not believe it would be a cost-effective endeavor to go out and look at every one of these," Lacy said. "There's a likelihood that we would save more lives spending that time and money on other activities ... There are issues that are much more impactful than this specific topic."
He cited federal data that shows while the number of guardrail crashes has increased, the percentage of collisions that resulted in serious injuries or deaths remains low, adding there's no evidence "Frankensteined guardrails" pose a widespread danger in North Carolina. Data provided to WCNC Charlotte by NCDOT identified 1,764 crashes involving guardrails ends in 2022 with 21 of those resulting in deaths and 53 resulting in serious injuries.
"These devices are performing far superior than what they were years ago. They do require proper installation," Lacy said. "We're not aware of fatalities or severe injuries involving these. I'm not saying that it's going to operate as it was intended to operate, but we're not aware of any severe injury or fatalities involving one of these guardrail ends in North Carolina. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It just means we've not run across that problem."
For Eimers, his crusade to save others is personal. His teenage daughter Hannah died after crashing into a guardrail on Nov. 1, 2016, in Tennessee. Eimers can still smell the coffee he was holding in his kitchen on the morning he received the call that changed his life.
"Nothing prepares you for the shock and horror of losing your child," he said. "It sent me down a rabbit hole that I am not yet out of."
The grieving father now spends his time reviewing Google Street View images and traveling the country, alerting agencies of dangerous guardrail installations.
"A lot of people have said, 'You need to move on.' I've kind of found what I'm really good at," Eimers said. "My goal here is to rob America's streets, North Carolina's streets, of a future victim by getting this kind of defectively installed guardrail off the roadway before somebody hits it."
NCDOT replaced a guardrail on I-485 near the airport in March within 24 hours of WCNC Charlotte notifying the agency. At the time, Eimers called the guardrail "extraordinarily dangerous."
"The referenced location had not been upgraded recently; however, it was inconsistent with current requirements and therefore replaced," NCDOT Communications Officer Jen Thompson said.
With Eimers' help, WCNC Charlotte identified Frankensteined guardrails" on I-77, Wilkinson Boulevard, I-26 in Hendersonville, and several on Highway 74 in Shelby.
"I am not anti-guardrail," Eimers said. "I am anti-doing it wrong."
Eimers said his daughter had such a loving heart. Unfortunately, he said Hannah's organs were so badly damaged during the crash, they couldn't be donated. Eimers sees his advocacy as a way of transplanting her heart long after her death.
"She only had one physical heart," he said. "In many ways, her heart, what happened to her, has been transplanted. I've probably got $100 million worth of guardrails replaced. There's a lot of people that are alive because of what happened to Hannah."
WCNC Charlotte produced an interactive map of the "Frankensteined guardrails" audited by WCNC Charlotte across the state. Look at it below for more:
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