Exploding Sunroofs Unexpected Holiday Driving Danger

Dec 19, 2017

A few weeks ago, my panoramic sunroof seemingly spontaneously cracked into thousands of pieces while I was driving 70 miles an hour on I-26 W, more than six hours away from home.

 

“I mean it’s still like together,” I told my mom in a voicemail, “but a thousand pieces. I think the only reason it’s still together is because of the tape you and I put up a while ago.”

 

 

My mom and I had put tint tape on the inner side of the roof a couple years ago. As I later learned, the manufacturer had also put tinted tape on the glass and the combination was likely helping the roof stay intact.

 

In many ways, I was super lucky. The glass didn’t fall on me and it happened to break a couple miles from a glass repair shop that crash-wrapped my roof so I could get home. But it was pretty scary, and the rest of the drive I kept wondering if the roof would fall in on me, if the rain would get in while I drove, why my roof was now making weird sounds, etc.

 

It turns out that my roof is not an anomaly.

A cell phone picture of the top of Kara's sunroof after she had pulled off the interstate.

“Every year we ask people what are their primary problems they’re having with their vehicles and we were actually surprised to find out that the biggest problem they’re having with their car is that their sunroof spontaneously exploded,” said Jeff Plungis, lead automotive investigative reporter at Consumer Reports. In October, Plungis co-authored a story on exploding sunroofs. My mom had sent me that story after it was published as an FYI. So, ironically, when it happened, I knew exactly what it was.

 

“This is happening more frequently than you might think. So we found when we went back into the  NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s] database we found more than 800 instances – or 859 to be exact – and we also noticed a trend. That a bulk of the instances – about 71 percent of them – had occurred since 2011.”

The view of Kara's sunroof after it broke from the inside of her car.

 

The report found instances in every month of the year in every part of the country on highways, country roads, and even while parked in driveways.

 

Experts don’t agree on what is causing the explosions, but Joe Milligan, the senior lead technician at Safelite AutoGlass in Charleston, says it doesn’t happen on its own.

 

“A lot of glass has to be fractured by some type of hit, whether it be rocks, wood, other cars, people hitting it in a certain spot – [all this makes it weaker. But anytime you’re doing glass, it could break at any point.”

 

I pointed out that I wasn’t near an underpass or another vehicle on  a completely clear day when mine broke.

 

“It might not have been that day,’ Milligan said. “You could have picked up a rock or something hit it a week in advance and fractured it and finally [it] just took that day, the right bump, the right temperature, the right road –anything like that – and finally [it] let itself loose.”    

Rows of windshields and sunroofs at Safelite's warehouse in Charleston.

 

Milligan said he’s putting more sunroofs on than he used to –mainly because more new cars have sunroofs and they get are getting bigger.  

 

Although my glass broke and scared me pretty badly – it sounded like a gun went off in the car – it didn’t fall. That’s not always the case.

 

“Sometimes people experience a shower of glass, you know, so you’ve got glass in your hair,” said Plungis. “You’re trying to maintain control of the vehicle in this very shocking unexpected situation. And even though there haven’t been fatalities, there have been minor injuries, and we just think it is an inherently dangerous situation.”    

 

Ok, so how do you protect yourself from an exploding sunroof? Basically, there’s no way to know if it will happen to you. A quick search of NHTSA’s database found complaints against Volkswagens, Hyundais, Fords, Nissans, Kias, Toyotas… You get the picture. Short of selling your car and jumping on the New Year’s sale events, do keep your sunroof protector closed. That way, if the glass breaks, at least it won’t break on you.

 

 

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.