On February 17, along Interstate-8 near Jacumba, Gonzalo Martinez and his brother were driving to a surprise birthday party for their aunt.
The computer data for Gonzalo’s Volkswagen Jetta shows he was driving 75 miles-per-hour, five miles over the speed limit. For an unknown reason, his car swerved off the freeway and wiped out almost 60-feet of guardrail posts before coming to a stop. Gonzalo wasn’t wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash.
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Photos taken by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) show a guardrail pierced through the car’s windshield, ripped out the driver’s headrest and continued through the rear window, extended out at least 20 feet. Gonzalo’s brother, Sergio Jr. was sleeping in the passenger seat, tilted back at the time of the crash. The guardrail just missed Sergio Jr.’s head.
Firefighters pronounced Gonzalo dead when they arrived on-scene.
“It was a bad accident,” Gonzalo’s father Sergio Martinez said, describing what he saw when he arrived at the crash site that day.
As a professional truck driver for more than 33 years, Martinez said he has seen a lot of accidents but none like the one that took his son’s life.
Gonzalo’s father said his questions surrounding what happened to his son weren’t getting answered. Through a public records request, NBC 7 Investigates obtained CHP investigative reports and accident scene photos, documents Sergio said he had never seen before.
“Nobody has even said a word to me, not at all,” Martinez said. “Not at all until you called.”
Photos from the accident scene show the guardrail system that speared through Gonzalo’s vehicle was an X-Lite end terminal, manufactured by Lindsay Transportation Solutions.
An analysis of Caltrans inventory data, performed by NBC 7 Investigates, found 165 X-Lite end terminals installed across San Diego County.
When a car hits a guardrail, the "end terminal" or cap on one end is supposed to act like an accordion and absorb the car's impact. Safety test footage of a vehicle crashing into a Lindsay X-Lite guardrail show what is supposed to happen to the vehicle and guardrail during a collision. The video was obtained from the Federal Highway Administration through a Freedom of Information Act Request.
The medical examiner report, reviewed by NBC 7 Investigates, states Gonzalo died of blunt force trauma to his face, brain, and neck.
The medical examiner also noted small amounts of marijuana and cocaine found in Gonzalo’s blood stream. NBC 7 Investigates consulted with an outside expert, Pathologist Cyril Wecht, to see if the amounts could have impacted Gonzalo’s driving. “The level found was quite low. It’s a presumptive positive which means it is insignificant,” Wecht said.
Sergio Sr. said when he went to the tow yard where his son’s car was taken, he was surprised the guardrail was gone. A tow yard worker told him the guardrail had been removed from the vehicle by unidentified men in green uniforms. The worker told Martinez the men covered the car with a tent, wrapped the guardrail in clear plastic wrap and carried it off. The worker said he had never seen this kind of activity at the tow yard before.
Caltrans officials confirmed with NBC 7 Investigates that Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Investigators were the men in green uniforms that day and that the guardrail was removed five days after the accident as part of their investigation.
One reason behind federal investigators taking possession of the X-Lite guardrail so soon after the accident could be increased attention on guardrails nationwide. According to the Government Accounting Office, 54-percent of all deadly auto accidents nationwide were a result of a vehicle going off the roadway.
Tamara Hinton, a spokesperson for the Lindsay Transportation Solutions told NBC 7 Investigates their guardrails have “saved lives and reduced the number and severity of injuries sustained from automobile accidents.”
Since July 2016, the FHWA, Caltrans and CHP have been studying the performance of the “most widely used energy absorbing guardrail end terminals in the United States.” The study also includes Massachusetts, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Among the guardrails being studied is the Lindsay Transportation Solutions’ X-Lite.
Sergio Martinez isn’t the only grieving father that NBC 7 Investigates spoke with who raised concerns about how their children died in automobile accidents.
“I knew something was wrong because guardrails should not pierce vehicles,” Steve Eimers out of Tennessee said.
Eimers lost his 17-year-old daughter Hannah on November 1, 2016, when her Volvo went off a road and collided with an X-LITE guardrail end terminal, according to Eimers’ attorney. After doing his own research, Eimers concluded the Lindsay Transportation Solutions’ X-Lite was to blame, so he filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. Eimers’ attorney told NBC 7 Investigates they have since voluntarily dismissed the case and they are currently reviewing their options.
In response to questions surrounding the X-Lite system, Lindsay Transportation Solutions referred NBC 7 Investigates to a statement by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, “In the crash that killed Hannah, the X-Lite performed ‘exactly the way it was supposed to.”
In a letter to the Federal Highway Administration, Tennessee Congressman John Duncan said his state’s safety expert concluded the X-Lite system “could and has penetrated a vehicle cabin” and “resulted in three deaths in my state.”
On April 29, 2017, in South Carolina, Ronald and Charlotte Blankenship were driving their car on Interstate 26 when the vehicle left the road and struck a Lindsay X-Lite end-terminal. The X-Lite “impaled the couple’s car, violently striking Mrs. Blankenship, who suffered immediate and catastrophic injuries,” according to Ronald Blankenship’s attorney. Charlotte did not survive.
And in Maryland, ten days before Gonzalo Martinez died, Pfc. Michael Carter was killed in similar circumstances. Carter, just 18-years-old, was beginning his life as a Marine when he died on the way to the recruiting station where he worked in Maryland. His mother, Sandra Johnson Carter called it a “senseless crash.” and began looking for why it happened.
In response to the accident that killed Carter, a spokesperson for Lindsay Transportation Solutions said, “It is our understanding from the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) that the X-LITE was not responsible for this young man’s death.”
Carter found, like the Eimers, Blankenships and Martinez families discovered, that her son Michael “was not the only person that had been killed by hitting an X-Lite end terminal.”
NBC 7 Investigates and NBC 4 Responds in Washington D.C. (WRC) found X-Lite end terminals are no longer being approved by states for installation, including here in California. All states are now requiring stricter crash testing standards, known as MASH, and the X-Lite end terminals are not compliant with those standards, according to the Federal Highway Administration and the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
Some state safety experts have raised concerns though, given there are thousands of X-Lite end terminal guardrails already installed across the country that could stay in place for years.
As of this year, 13 states are in the process of removing X-Lite end terminals from their roadways, according to WRC.
Lindsay Transportation Solutions has attributed the removals as part of ongoing upgrades to highway safety hardware and that they have nothing to do with the reported deaths and injuries suffered by motorists and passengers.
NBC 7 Investigates requested an on-camera interview with a representative from Lindsay Transportation Solutions but the request was denied.
In response to a list of questions sent to Lindsay Transportation Solutions, Hinton said, "Guardrail end terminals are designed to mitigate the risk of hitting fixed objects such as utility poles, steep embankments, and other unyielding objects when a driver leaves the road, but they cannot eliminate all the risks involved with an unintended exit.”
“Numerous states that use the X-LITE on their roads have confirmed that they’ve had no negative experiences and publicly available performance data that is reported monthly to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) demonstrates that the X-LITE performs as well as or better than similar products on the market,” the statement read.
To read Lindsay Transportation Solutions’ full statement to NBC 7 Investigates, click here.
Caltrans told NBC 7 Investigates they are not actively removing existing X-Lite end terminals along state roads.
Out of 804 X-Lite end terminal guardrail systems installed across the state, 20-percent are installed along roadways here in San Diego County, according to an NBC 7 Investigates analysis of Caltrans inventory data. A majority of the X-Lite guardrails are installed along Interstate-8 and Interstate-15.
To see where X-Lite guardrail systems are installed in San Diego County, look below or click here.
“X-Lite guardrail end treatments represents just a fraction of the more than 40,000 guardrail end treatments that we estimate are on the State Highway System,” said Vanessa Wiseman with Caltrans.
On August 7, Gonzalo Martinez’s family filed a claim against the state of California, stating a “dangerous condition was created” along Interstate-8 where Gonzalo was killed.
“They [the state of California] know they got problems with it, why didn’t they fix it,” Sergio Martinez told NBC 7 Investigates. “I don't want nobody else to go through this.”