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Why do drivers in Austin need to be warned of guardrail damage ahead?

An orange sign at a fork in the road indicates guardrail damage ahead
Michael Minasi

Lee esta historia en español

Oakwalker (that’s his legal name) packed up his family and moved to Austin in 2007. On his drive from San Diego, he began to notice bright orange “guardrail damage ahead” signs along the highways in West Texas. He saw more and more of them as he arrived in the city.

He hadn’t seen the signs in California, Arizona or New Mexico, so he initially thought they were “cute, and quaint, and Texan.”

Yet, the more he thought about them, the stranger they seemed.

“It just was kind of odd for me that they would warn me about getting close to something that I don’t want to get close to in the first place,” Oakwalker said. He wondered: Do officials want us to crash somewhere else in the event of an accident?

He suspected there could be some legal reason, but decided to ask KUT’s ATXplained project to get a solid answer.

“Why is it necessary in Texas that we must be warned about Guardrail Damage Ahead?" he wrote. "I've never seen that in any other state."

When safety devices like guardrails are defective, it makes sense to warn the public so they can drive more cautiously. However, Oakwalker raises some interesting points.

Only in Texas?

The Federal Highway Administration has a manual that outlines the standard road regulations states must follow.

States have discretion in whether they want to adhere only to the national standards, add amendments or make their own statewide manual.

“You have to follow the minimum federal regulations no matter what, but Texas can be stricter with their regulations,” said Patricia Moreno, superintendent for bridge repair and maintenance at the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department.

“Guardrail damage ahead” signs are explicitly mentioned in Texas’ manual, but not in the national one. Other states may use signs, lights or cones to show a guardrail needs to be fixed.

What purpose do they serve?

Guardrails are meant to absorb the impact of vehicles in a crash and keep them on the road.

Most guardrails are only fully protective to vehicles traveling up to 62 miles per hour according to crash tests. But drivers — especially on Texas highways — oftentimes drive faster than this. When guardrails are damaged or defective, people can be severely injured or killed by them.

“If there is a defect on the roadway that affects ordinary users of the road then people who are injured can bring a claim against the state,” said Judy Kostura, a personal injury attorney at Sorrels Law. If there’s not a sign showing there’s damage, a person could sue.

“Guardrail damage ahead” signs must follow certain criteria for them to protect the city or state, such as being correctly placed, being free from obstruction and adhering to traffic guidelines.

“[The government’s] duty once they know there’s a problem is to warn or repair,” Kostura said.

You can think of “guardrail damage ahead” signs as the functional equivalent to a commercial establishment putting up “caution wet floor” signs. The signs are not only a legal acknowledgement, but a courtesy to protect people.

“We’re doing our part to make sure that the public knows that there was some type of damage there,” said Michael Girod, division manager of district maintenance for the city.

What if I see guardrail damage?

You can report guardrail damage by calling 311 or by completing a service request form here.

The City of Austin is not responsible for Texas highways or county roads, but officials say you can report guardrail damage on those roads to Austin 311 anyway.

“District maintenance will respond to that and if we determine it’s a TxDOT road, we’ll refer that back to 311, and they’ll route that to TxDOT,” Girod said.

You probably know more about guardrail signs than you wanted to. And while you may not think the signs are cute or quaint, they definitely are Texan.

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