ATLANTA — There is a monster on Georgia's roads. Chances are you'll never be able to spot it even if you're looking right at it.
It's called a "Frankensteined" guardrail. One Georgia family said it killed their only daughter.
"How did this even happen?" said Cathy Alonzo, whose daughter Isabella was killed after a crash. "How are you just driving down the road and all of the sudden your car is impaled by a guardrail?"
That's a question she and her husband, Mark, have been asking for the past two years. How did a device, meant to protect drivers, kill their 18-year-old daughter?
"As soon as I saw the car, I was crying, and I said, 'this isn’t going to be good,'" Mark Alonzo said. "I can’t even recognize her car."
The car was left mangled after it struck a guardrail on I-75 in Peach County in March 2020.
"The guardrail was sticking 10 feet up in the air," Mark said. " It wasn’t right. I mean guardrails aren’t supposed to look that way. That’s the first time I’d heard 'Frankenstein.'"
WHAT IS A "FRANKENSTEINED" GUARDRAIL
A "Frankensteined" guardrail is not a brand or type of guardrail. It's a term used to describe a guardrail made with mixed parts from different manufacturers. The parts that don't work together ultimately create a monster on the roads.
"It can be deadly," mechanical engineer Ben Railsback said.
Railsback came up with the term "Frankensteined" after he investigated a crash in Colorado where a woman struck a guardrail made up of mixed parts.
"It just jammed up the system and kinked the guardrail, forcing it back around into the side of her vehicle," Railsback said.
The woman in that crash survived, and Colorado's Department of Transportation launched a statewide investigation to find every "Frankensteined" guardrail on the roads.
Georgia's Department of Transportation did not do the same after Isabella's death.
WHERE ARE THEY IN GEORGIA?
11Alive's investigation uncovered the "Frankensteined" rail Isabella hit was not the only one on Georgia roads.
The investigative team found at least three more: two on Interstate 75 and one on I-285.
GDOT wouldn't go on camera but sent a statement to 11Alive.
"GDOT found that the 3 locations in question do not represent the instillation specifications identified by the Department or the manufacturer. Once we were in possession of the list held by WXIA, we went to work immediately and all 3 were reported for review and scheduled for replacement within the week, or at time of this story airing have already been replaced. Statewide there are roughly 34,000 end treatments on our roadway system at any given time. Therefore, we do not believe this reflects a widespread issue. However, we are dedicated to working with employees, as well as contractors, to reinforce the installation practices that are acceptable by GDOT and FHWA. At any time, if a citizen identifies a piece of infrastructure that they feel is unsafe, we encourage them to report it to the department so that there can be a review and repair, when necessary. With almost 50,000 lane miles on our system, we know that the millions of motorists who use our roads daily are some of our best eyes and advocates for safe roadways."
Mark said after a crash, it's clear that the guardrail is "Frankensteined."
"After it’s been hit, I can tell the difference between one that worked and the one that she hit that didn’t’ work," Mark said.
But before that, he said they all look the same.
"I DON'T WANT IT TO HAPPEN TO ANYONE ELSE'S CHILD."
The Alonzos said GDOT shouldn't wait for someone else to spot these rails when the potential for injury is so catastrophic.
"The doctor said the guardrail had separated her, her spine from her pelvis, and crushed her pelvis," Mark said describing his daughter's injuries.
Isabella stayed alive just long enough for her parents to say goodbye.
"I asked her, because they already told us she wasn’t going to make it, and I said, 'do you see Jesus?' And she shook her head, and I said, 'well, go with Jesus. And we’ll see you soon,'" Mark said, fighting back tears as he relived the memory.
"This shouldn’t have happened to our daughter and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else’s child," Cathy said.
The Alonzos are suing GDOT for Isabella's death.
As for the "Frankensteined" guardrails 11Alive found, GDOT said it replaced them within a week.
It's worth noting one of the "Frankensteined" guardrails found by 11Alive investigators was on the road for more than a year. No GDOT worker ever spotted it or alerted the agency that it shouldn't be there.
11Alive investigators reached out to two manufacturers whose parts were found being used by contractors to create "Frankensteined" guardrails.
The company, Road Systems, Inc (RSI), told us:
"These improperly installed guardrail terminals can be very dangerous. Our products being properly installed and properly applied at site locations where the terminals are able perform as they were designed and tested is of great importance to RSI. We developed innovative interactive on-line training to provide Contractors and State DOT’s the tools needed to properly install, inspect, and maintain our products. You can find our training here. We stand ready to provide the training needed to assure our products are properly installed."
Another company called Trinity, whose parts were being combined with RSI's did not return the request for comment.