BOSTON (CBS) – When Betty and Jim Bennett were traveling from their home in Weymouth to a holiday party in Connecticut, they had an unexpected scare on the road. “All of a sudden we heard this crash. It sounded like an explosion,” Betty said. “I was thinking, did we just get shot?”
When they pulled over, they realized the sunroof on their 2016 Toyota Rav4 shattered. Small pieces of glass sprayed all over the interior of the car. “Neither of us got hurt, but later that night at a party, I was picking glass out of my hair,” Betty recalled.
When a Connecticut State Trooper arrived at the scene, she couldn’t find any debris that could have caused the damage. The police report called the break “spontaneous”.
Betty assumed it was some sort of isolated incident, but says the Trooper told her it happens all the time.
Sean Kane is a nationally known auto safety researcher out of Rehoboth, and he agrees with the Trooper. “There’s been hundreds of complaints, if not thousands, where sunroofs are shattering as folks are just driving down the road,” he said.
Those complaints, logged with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, involve many different makes and models. But the narratives from the drivers are very similar. Just in the past few weeks a driver from Ohio wrote to the agency saying: It sounded like a shotgun blast when the sunroof exploded. Another car owner from New York wrote: My sunroof spontaneously shattered.
Even though most sunroofs are made of tempered glass, which is designed to break into small cube-like pieces, and no serious injuries have been reported, Kane says it should still be a concern for drivers. “It certainly is a safety problem when you have shattering tempered glass splattering inside the car,” he said.
When we contacted NHTSA a spokesperson told us: NHTSA is committed to public safety and the Agency has an open investigation and is actively looking into this issue and continues to analyze test data and other information to determine if this issue is linked to a defect.
According to Kane, this problem has been getting worse in recent years. He believes it is partly because more cars are being made with larger panoramic sunroofs which he says are at greater risk for shattering. But he also believes efforts to keep cars affordable could also be a contributing factor. “It’s a race to the bottom for price and ultimately that is going to affect the quality,” he said.
Toyota refused to comment on the Bennett’s case, but in a statement a spokesperson said: We can say that Toyota is committed to the safety and security of our customers and to responding rapidly to developments in the field.
Betty is not convinced of that commitment to safety. “If I had grandchildren in the back seat at that moment, they would be covered in glass,” she said.
The Bennetts would like to see manufacturers use something safer, like the laminated glass on windshields that stays together when it breaks. But Kane is not sure car makers would be willing to take on that extra cost.