The Trouble with Sunroofs: NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #479

As sunroofs become more popular with new car buyers, questions abound whether they are safe or not.

In October 2017, Consumer Reports (CR) came out with a scathing study on sunroofs that seem to shatter for no reason. Over the past 22 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had received 859 complaints of sunroofs exploding with 36 reports of personal injury. Consumer Reports looked at those complaints and determined that sunroofs have exploded in 208 models across 35 vehicle brands. CR also claims that shattering sunroofs is an under-reported issue because automakers receive far more complaints than NHTSA.

In November, the U.S. Senate become involved in the issue by formally asking a number of questions of automakers. Senators Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Edward Markey (MA) wrote to the automakers:

 “While, thankfully, severe injuries have not been officially linked to this hazard, the increasing trend of this risk requires immediate response and action. It is vital that you take steps to assure consumers of the structural integrity of their sunroofs.”

There is no definite answer why sunroofs explode spontaneously. NHTSA has not updated the safety standards since 1996 which was long before sunroofs became mainstream, curved and sometimes panoramic.

In January, General Motors said they would voluntarily begin an internal review of panoramic sunroofs on its own vehicles. This is a good start and hopefully all automakers can start self-policing. Otherwise, consumers will take matters into their own hands.

For example, a class-action has been filed in California District Court against Volkswagen. Plaintiffs claim that VW knew that sunroofs installed in many of its car models may spontaneously explode and failed to warn customers of this problem before purchase.

There is another danger though with sunroofs that has also not received much attention and that is what happens to them in a car crash. A New York Times article recently reported a case about 18-year-old Liza Hankins who was thrown through a closed sunroof of her sport-utility vehicle during a crash. She became paralyzed and her family sued Ford claiming it had failed to live up to its safety responsibilities. Ford won the case after stating that no regulations existed that required a sunroof to keep someone inside a vehicle during a crash.

Hundreds of sunroof ejections occur each year. Here are some troubling NHTSA crash statistics (that are rather old since no other statistics are currently available):

  • Between 1997 and 2008, about 300 people were killed and 1,400 injured each year from being thrown out of sunroofs, whether opened or closed.
  • Between 2002 and 2012, about 230 people were killed and 500 injured each year from ejecting out of closed sunroofs.

Automakers are now trying to make sunroofs safer by using laminated glass which is the same glass used in windshields. During the Liza Hankins court case, Ford attorneys stated that laminated glass, which uses a layer of plastic film between two layers of glass, was safer but could cause serious brain and neck injuries which Ford concluded was a greater threat to belted occupants than ejection. Tempered glass, the same glass used in side windows, is the usual type of glass currently used for sunroofs.

The NHTSA is working on a new safety crash test that could presage regulations governing sunroofs in the near future.

Automakers need to be on top of this problem and not rely on government regulations for compliance. Consumers need to hold automakers to their usual ‘safety first’ mandate.

A question still remains: if vehicles have so many common safety standards such as airbags, better frames for rollover crashes, anti-lock brakes and traction control, why haven’t sunroofs been a fixture on that list?

If automakers cannot get sunroof designs right after years of implementation, how can they be expected to master much more complex systems such as those in autonomous vehicles? A question currently without a convincing answer.

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