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Graduate students offer fix for Big Dig’s deadly rails

Big Dig tunnel handrails were involved in seven traffic deaths between 2005 and 2008. Big Dig tunnel handrails were involved in seven traffic deaths between 2005 and 2008. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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After Sam Maurer’s 19-year-old son was killed in a gruesome crash into handrails in the Big Dig tunnels, Mauer vowed to come up with a fix for the so-called ginsu guardrails that have been involved in seven traffic deaths between 2005 and 2008.

This spring, Maurer, a 59-year-old industrial engineer, commissioned graduate engineering students at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility in Nebraska to search for a repair to the guardrails.

The students’ recently finished report urges a chain-link-style fence system that they say would help save the lives of motorcyclists and motorists. They estimated the cost at $873,000. It comes after stories in the Globe in February that pointed out possible design flaws in the handrails that might have contributed to the deaths. The railings run for about 6 miles throughout the tunnels and are designed to keep workers from falling into the road.

“This design has the advantage of improved pedestrian and motorist vision, maintains aesthetics of the walkway, improves motorcyclist safety, and prevents post snagging with the continuous rail element,’’ the report said.

It’s relatively inexpensive and has no sharp edges that might hurt motorists.

“As long as the existing rail is in place in its current location,’’ the report said, “the Massachusetts Department of Transportation stands to incur a significant cost via litigation, plus reinforcing a societal perspective of insensitivity on behalf of governing authorities.’’

Cody Stolle, one of the authors, who is working on a doctorate in engineering, said he hoped the rails are changed soon, “to make sure people who ride motorcycles don’t have to fear running into a concrete barrier.’’

After the Globe’s article, the state vowed to come out with a report by the end of March that would examine possible problems with the railings. But months later, no report has been released.

The study has been completed but not released because of pending litigation, said Adam Hurtubise, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.

“However, nothing in the report has led us to change our initial conclusion that the railings are safe and meet all state and federal safety standards,’’ Hurtubise said in a statement. “The tunnel rail systems are safe.’’

“MassDOT is now evaluating the study,’’ Hurtubise continued, “and is in discussion with the Federal Highway Administration, which will ultimately need to approve any tunnel modification that might be considered. Discussions with City of Boston fire and emergency officials will also need to be completed before any final course of action is adopted.’’

In an interview, Hurtubise added, “The [grad student] report submitted several weeks ago to Mass. DOT by a Globe reporter was reviewed by highway division engineers and while some recommendations were neither feasible nor practical, they were taken under consideration.’’ He noted that the report was never formally submitted to the agency and it was never asked to provide information.

The railings are at the center of a lawsuit scheduled to go to trial Oct. 12 in Suffolk Superior Court involving the death of State Trooper Vincent Cila. The motorcyclist’s neck was broken and arm was sliced off when he struck the guardrails while on duty in 2005. He bled to death in seconds.

Cila was one of the motorists and passengers killed between 2005 and 2008 when they struck handrails in the Big Dig tunnel system. At least one other person lost a limb but survived. The railings were dubbed the “ginsu guardrails’’ by public safety officers called to the grisly scenes.

Safety experts contacted by the Globe this year cited problems with the handrail design that might have contributed to the deaths — the horizontal railings were spaced too widely, allowing a motorcyclist or car passengers to become entangled and hit a vertical post; the railings should sit higher off the road than 3 feet, or roughly the height of a motorcycle’s seat; and the thin vertical posts had squared off edges that could act as a cutting blade, even at low speeds.

Maurer’s son, Christopher, serving in the US Navy on the USS Constitution in Charlestown, was killed in 2008. Driving a powerful Honda motorcycle he had owned for about an hour, he struck a pedestrian handrail as he entered a tunnel connecting the surface artery at Haymarket Square to the Callahan Tunnel.

The crash devastated the Maurer family.

“There is a hole in my heart you can drive a truck through,’’ said Maurer, from Kansas, who also has a daughter. His wife, Patrice, who had taught math and French for more than 30 years, was so emotionally overwhelmed that she now works as a paraprofessional in the school library, at 20 percent of her former salary.

One way to cope was to help find a solution. Maurer approached the staff at the safety facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The staff, in turn, urged the grad students to take on the independent project, which Maurer financed with $1,000.

The seven students produced a 24-page report called “Redesign of the Boston Tunnel Guardrail.’’

The students came up with three possible solutions. One involved broad metal plates over the current guardrails, closing the horizontal holes, while another suggested moving the current rails back. The estimated cost of those options were about $2 million and $473,000, respectively.

But the grad students report said the best solution was to use chain-link fence, secured with thin pipe-style tubes. That will help prevent people from getting entangled and hitting the vertical posts in the current handrails, according to the report.

Dean Sicking, who is director of the Nebraska safety facility and who literally wrote the book that is the standard reference for evaluating the safety of roadside structures, praised the work done by the students.

“They did a great job,’’ said Sicking, widely acknowledged as one of the country’s foremost experts on the safety of roadside barriers and who was one of the experts consulted by the Globe. Sicking offered the students guidance as they worked on the project. “I couldn’t have done a better job myself.’’

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com or at Twitter@GlobeMattC.

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