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Shattered sunroof

Exploding sunroofs are a thing. The investigation to understand why has dragged on for half a decade.

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — You're cruising down the highway, enjoying the fresh air and blue sky view you get with a sunroof. Suddenly it explodes and rains glass down on your head.

It sounds like a freak accident. But a Circa investigation found hundreds of complaints about sunroof explosions and a government investigation that's dragged on almost half a decade.

The explosion scenario is something Chris Pelesky has experienced first-hand. While on his daily commute in Maryland in 2016, he says his sunroof spontaneously shattered.

He explained, "It was literally like a shotgun. When something happens when you’re going 65 mph like that, wow!"

Pelesky says there was no rock or falling debris. Instead, he says it was just an explosion that dropped glass all over his car and sent him swerving as he exited a tunnel in Baltimore.

"That was a day that my life flashed before my eyes. "
Chris Pelesky, experienced exploding sunroof

There are hundreds of complaints that echo Pelesky's experience. They've been filed with NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Circa searched the public database and discovered nearly 900 complaints about the problem, with almost 200 filed just in the last two years. Those complaints list 17 different manufacturers, with drivers across the country relaying horror stories when it happened.

Circa found these stories among the complaints:

  • "I had my 6 month old baby in his car seat when I heard a huge explosion. I looked up and the sunroof had exploded. My son was covered in tiny pieces of glass."
  • "I'm thankful I didn't wreck and kill myself or someone else."
  • "Spontaneously exploded and rained glass down on me."

Safety advocates say exploding sunroofs are a problem that needs more attention and awareness. The issue has been on the radar of the Center for Auto Safety for years, when Circa sister station WJLA-TV started highlighting the problem in a series of reports in 2014.

NHTSA has also been long aware of the problem. The agency began investigating the problem in one manufacturer half a decade ago. But there's been no resolution. Circa asked Jason Levine, the executive director at CAS, whether the investigation is a priority for the government. He said, "It certainly doesn’t seem to be. This many number of years later, there should be more answers."

A NHTSA spokesman wouldn't answer specific questions about the problem, citing the ongoing investigation. But Circa found evidence car makers are well aware of the problem. Documents handed over as part of the official NHTSA investigation show manufacturers breaking down hundreds of incidents of exploding sunroofs by make, model and year.

"This appears to be, from all accounts, a defect that is well documented," Levine explained. "And when something is defective it's on that manufacturer to take care of it. And if not, people do have the ability to go to court."

A search of federal court records turned up at least six ongoing class-action lawsuits filed against automakers in relation to exploding sunroofs. Those suits claim
manufacturers are aware of a defect and don’t disclose to buyers.

So, what's causing the explosions? The lawsuits offer some potential explanations, citing the use of tempered, not laminated glass in sunroofs. They also lay blame on a ceramic coating used in some sunroofs that compromises strength. And, lastly, some claim the need for a tight installation creates pressure.

"It’s not something consumers can really do something about," Levine said. "That’s something that needs to be dealt with at the manufacturers' level or at the regulatory level."

"You can’t drive more carefully and have your sunroof not explode."
Jason Levine, Center for Auto Safety

So far, there’s no regulation creating a standard for sunroof glass. As for recalls, a handful of manufacturers have done voluntary, limited recalls that acknowledge a problem with their sunroofs. Chris Pelesky’s car was among those recalled. He says it was checked at a dealer and told it was fine.

He said, "I never thought about it again until that morning when I’m driving through that tunnel and there’s glass raining down."

Pelesky and scores of others who filed complaints with the federal government say NHTSA needs to act—before there's a tragedy. Although records show injuries have been reported, there are no known deaths related to these explosions. Pelesky knows how easily it could happen when the glass shatters.

"Heaven forbid that gets in your eyes while you’re trying to drive your car," he told Circa. "That means you’re likely going to drive into somebody else or something else and cause a lot of issues.

"I was really, really lucky."

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