Federal investigators look into sunroof explosions

Federal investigators looking into sunroof explosions
Published: Jul. 29, 2015 at 1:05 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 29, 2015 at 2:37 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - An ongoing federal investigation is looking into what dozens of Mid-Southerners recently experienced: cases of spontaneous sunroof explosions.

"My eyes are blurry. I can't read anything. I can't see anything on my phone," said Wade Owens.

Owens was on a routine drive to work when he felt small pieces of glass raining into his car and into his eyes.

It was no less frightening for Ayesha Farr when she heard the sound while driving her 2013 KIA Optima.

"It was closed. Luckily, that day it was closed," Farr said. "I mean, literally sounded like a gunshot. I was scared because I thought someone was shooting on the highway."

Hundreds of drivers have made complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the problem. It has even caused Audi and Hyundai to issue voluntary recalls on some models.

One YouTube video shows it happening to an Infiniti SUV.

When some drivers called other car manufacturers, like KIA, to report what the NHTSA calls "spontaneous sunroof breakage," the company blamed "external impacts from rocks or other foreign objects."

"They're not taking responsibility because they've had to make the cars lighter," said Don Phillips.

Phillips is an expert on the problem in Shelby County. He consults in accident investigations and specializes in auto glass. He said there are several factors resulting in so many fractured and faulty sunroofs in recent model years.

"The main issue is that the glass in the structure around the sunroof is being made thinner in vehicles," Phillips said.

He said car makers are under pressure from the federal government to make vehicles with better fuel mileage, and they're doing that by using lighter metals for the frame and auto bodies.

"The problem is that going with the thinner materials and the thinner sheet metal in the cars, you're getting more movement, so now you're more on the edge of what they used to be when things were heavier and thicker and more robust," Phillips said.

KIA's own investigation found no evidence of a defect, but federal regulators opened their own, noting that the rate of reported incidents is a concern. The investigation, which started in May 2014, is still open, but until more car manufacturers issue recalls, Phillips said there are some things consumers can do.

When it's really hot out, leave the shade to your sunroof open when you're not in the car so heat does not build up between the glass and the shade, putting more pressure on the glass.

Getting a sunroof tinted on the inside can prevent glass from showering down on you if the sunroof does break.

Drivers already burned by the problem said they will not risk it again.

"Probably, my next car, I won't get a sunroof," Farr said.

You can search your car's make and model in the NHTSA's database to find out how many others have complained about this issue with your car.

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