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Interview with Chris Sanders, president of Barrier Systems

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Chris Sanders of Barrier Systems raises pertinent points with regard to the guard rail sector
Chris Sanders of Barrier Systems raises pertinent points with regard to the guard rail sector
Q. Explain the difference between US and European barrier requirements and how these developed.

A. Products developed for the US are tested to NCHRP Report 350 or the latest MASH standard.  While any new products must be qualified to MASH, the FHWA continues to allow the use of NCHRP 350 qualified systems, acknowledging that these systems have proven to perform acceptably. In Europe, barrier systems must be qualified to EN1317, which continues to evolve. The vehicle fleets determine the primary testing differences between European and US standards. The US fleet has historically had more Pickups and SUV’s than European fleets, but this has fluctuated over the years in the US as we experience rising and falling fuel prices. One example we have seen recently are certain countries in the Middle East grappling with what standard to use. If their fleet has a high percentage of SUV’s, Pick Ups and large cars they should seriously consider the 350 standard, but either standard will substantially improve safety over untested safety barriers.
A significant difference between European test standards and US standards are the measurement of deflection. While both measure the deflection only EN1317 actually sets standards and measures them using the working width criteria. This is important for permanent median barriers and work zone barriers where high deflection can create large intrusions into work zones potentially hurting workers.  Cable barriers as an example have a very important place in the market but should not be used in narrow medians.
Another difference in implementation is that while US standards do have TL4 and TL5 high containment standards they are rarely seen in the US, while H2 and H3 systems are often seen in certain parts of Europe particularly with Median guardrail barriers.
At the end of the day, the Test Standards do a good job of differentiating various products, and it is up to the authorities to understand those differences and apply the different systems to the roadway. Unfortunately, industry has much more work to do to educate design engineers in both developed and developing regions.

Q. What developments in the sector can help boost safety for vulnerable road users?

A. The primary point is that many solutions are available today. That was not as true 20 to 30 years ago. Now properly tested barriers to both standards are available and can be used in work zones and permanent applications.
In the last 10 years a number of high containment, very low deflection steel barriers have become available in the marketplace. These require anchoring in most cases but are very light weight and highly portable. This allows older bridge structures that do have weight issues from time to time to be safely rehabilitated. In addition where transport expenses are high, the light weight barriers can be loaded more effectively on trucks and reduce delivery costs.
Another feature of these barriers is the addition of wheels making them easily portable in work zones. Once they have wheels (retracted when in use) their flexibility increases significantly. These steel barriers can be used as gates and as longitudinal barriers to create short positively protected work zones. In the past these types of short duration project workzones could not be protected by long and heavy concrete barriers, but instead by the good old orange cone which has never safely redirected a vehicle on impact.
Some like our Quickchange Reactive Tension Barrier are actually high containment moveable barriers that can reconfigure roadways and workzones. These systems combine all the safety features of other tested barriers while reconfiguring the roadway or workzone at up to 10mph.
In summary, there are barriers for all applications but governments and road authorities have to pay the price for this safety. It is not reasonable for a contractor to absorb the additional cost of a positive barrier. The authorities must specify it and provide a payment mechanism, or the contractors will go with cones which are the lowest cost and more dangerous solution.
Positive barrier protection clearly separates both the motorist and the highway worker so that both remain as safe as possible.

Q. How can developing nations be encouraged to employ either European or US safety standards for barriers and other safety systems when building new highways?

A. If you visit many developing countries you will see all kinds of concrete barriers and in many cases plastic devices. It’s interesting to see how many of these devices are not even pinned together, so they are creating a series of small hazards along the highway. Tested barriers whether concrete, steel or plastic have engineered hinges and connection systems that ensure they redirect and contain the vehicle. Enforcing a testing standard will ensure that the authorities are getting what they are paying for and are improving safety. I would encourage authorities to set testing criteria and ensure that systems are then installed the way the manufacturer intended. The best device installed incorrectly will have no effect or potentially be worse. The US and Europe both have well developed and proven criteria that can easily be adopted.

Q. What have been the most important developments in safety barriers in the last five years?

I think some of the moveable barriers are the most important development in the past five years, whether it is our Quickchange Moveable Barrier or other portable steel barriers with wheels. These new barriers are tested to high standards and provide tremendous flexibility to the Contractor and Authority. They also have long lifecycles and are inexpensive to transport.

Q. What impact has the global economic crisis had on investment by companies in creating new safety barrier technology?

Certainly companies are concerned about the global economic crisis and take that into account in their planning. That said, the last couple of years do not seem to have slowed down development. In the US there was a rush to bring new products to market under the NCHRP Report 350 approval guidelines. That development may fall off a little now, but that is a function of the criteria changing not the economy.  The new MASH criteria implemented in the US significantly raises the cost of new product development and will consequently result in an increase in costs for products performing the same function as before with proven results. This comes at a time when transportation authorities have less money to spend and a growing need to maintain or develop their infrastructure. We continue to monitor the markets and adjust our development activities accordingly.  
The other thing to remember is that many economies chose to stimulate their economies with infrastructure spending the last few years, so we have seen limited effect to date. For me it is possible the spending cuts are about to hit us harder, as the US stimulus funds are finished and the States still have severe funding issues. Europe also has its own set of similar problems and we are not out of the woods  yet.

Q. How important is investment in transport infrastructure, such as safety barriers, during tough economic times?

It’s very important. It creates a lot of jobs. We also see the effect on roads around the world of not keeping up with maintenance. If you do not keep up, the cost to catch up is greater than doing the work properly when it was needed.
The other piece we see in our business is the need for governments to spend wisely. There are many new types of barrier and they can be very cost effective. Steel barriers typically last longer than concrete. Our Quickchange moveable barrier systems allow you to add a lane of capacity at a fraction the cost of widening a bridge one lane. These new products are different than some of the old tried and true construction methods and we need innovation in our government procurement to get the value out of what is available.

Q. What kind of investment potential is there for Barrier Systems in Russia given the country’s significant current spend on highways projects?

A. We are pursuing a number of QuickChange Moveable Barrier projects in the Moscow and St Petersburg areas aimed at reducing congestion and increasing safety with low economic or infrastructure impact. We are also seeing the increased use of crash cushions as safety standards are increased.  These are 1317 approved systems sold through Snoline, our sister company based in Milan, Italy.

Q. Explain how the cross-fertilisation of technology between Barrier Systems in the US and its sister company Snoline in Europe benefits the group as a whole.

A. We have been able to take platforms from both regions and adapt them to the respective local market. This certainly helps save development costs. Many of our US based products have come from Europe and other parts of the world, and collaboration is critically important to many of us in this industry.

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