Officials say the faulty metal caps on guardrails could be anywhere in Maryland or Virginia. (Marvin Joseph/Washington Post)

The hunt has begun on Maryland and Virginia roadways for a potentially flawed safety device that could cause guardrails to impale cars that hit them.

Highway crews are fanning out across both states in search of the devices — rectangular metal caps fitted to the end of guardrails — which are made by a Texas company, Trinity Industries, and approved by federal highway authorities.

“They could be anywhere in the commonwealth,” said Marshall Herman, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “We’re going to have to go out and find them.”

Virginia, which has installed about 11,000 caps made by various manufacturers in the past eight years, said it will replace any Trinity units it finds. Maryland says it will figure out what to do once it determines how many are out there.

The controversy involves a design change that has been blamed for five deaths and several injuries. There have been allegations that a corporation side-stepped federal regulators, and there are questions as to whether those regulators should have acted sooner.

The situation also underlines the fact that state highway officials often don’t know whose products their contractors install.

More than 21 / 2 years after it became aware of the problematic design change, the Federal Highway Administration last week ordered Trinity to conduct a fresh set of crash tests on the unit known as the ET-Plus guardrail head.

That order came after a federal jury in Texas decided that Trinity defrauded the federal government by making a cost-cutting design change without telling the FHWA and ordered the company to pay $175 million. A whistleblower had alleged that the company changed the design but didn’t inform regulators for several years.

Allegations of a design flaw that can turn a guardrail into a spear surfaced in victims’ lawsuits and in the case put before the seven-member Texas jury that decided that Trinity had violated the federal False Claims Act.

Guardrail heads are rectangular pieces of steel affixed to the end of guardrails. When a vehicle plows into one, the head is supposed to slide along the guardrail and deflect it away from the car.

Guardrail heads have been used to minimize injuries and damage for decades.

Trinity’s ET-Plus head received federal and state approvals when it debuted in the 1990s. In 2005, Trinity made a small design change. The channel behind the guardrail head, along which the rail end is supposed to slide in a crash, was reduced by an inch — from five inches to four — allegedly saving the company $2 per unit.

Federal and state officials said they should have been notified of the change but weren’t.

FHWA officials first learned of the change in 2012 from a Virginia-based competitor who was in litigation with Trinity and later brought the False Claims Act suit that was decided in Texas.

The competitor, Joshua Harmon, contended that the change created a deficiency that made the ET-Plus more of a menace than a safety feature, a contention that Trinity disputes.

Harmon roamed the country, documenting what he saw as failures and posting photos on a Web site. His allegations have been bolstered by lawsuits brought in connection with at least 14 accidents.

One of the accidents, in which two people were injured in 2012, occurred on Interstate 81 in Virginia, according to state police. VDOT’s Herman said another accident involving an ET-Plus rail end took place this year in Loudoun County.

By the time Trinity said it would stop selling the ET-Plus last week, more than a dozen states had banned its use.

The way most states handle highway projects makes it difficult to know where Trinity end units are in place. The states supply highway contractors with a list of approved products. Contractors, in turn, shop for the best price on an approved item.

On relatively minor items, such as guardrail end units, state inspectors generally don’t note who made the product after verifying that it’s from the approved list. Now they are dealing with the possibility that contractors may have a stockpile of the ET-Plus.

“We have contacted our contractors who may have already purchased this, and we’re asking them to alert us if they’re planning to put it in,” said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Crews have been dispatched with measuring tapes to check for Trinity rail ends, Edgar said.“You have to actually go measure it, because the five-inch is what was approved and then they switched to a four-inch,” she said. “They didn’t switch to a different serial number or anything, so we don’t know. We could have five-inch or we could have four-inch.”

Edgar said the state couldn’t act immediately to replace four-inch units. “You have to immediately have [replacement] inventory to put something else in,” she said. “We’re getting an assessment of what’s out there. If the feds put out something that all of this absolutely has to come out, we’re not in a position to do that immediately now anyway.”

VDOT’s Herman said Virginia is prepared to replace potentially faulty units, the first state to announce that it would do so.

“We are working on a plan for removal,” she said. “When we find them, we’ll replace them. The level of detail of the plan, that’s still being worked out.”

Herman said contractors doing work in the state have been instructed not to install the ET-Plus.