Exploding sunroofs: Complaints are soaring – here are the car brands and models involved

Click to play video: 'Transport Canada reveals number of complaints regarding shattered sunroofs on vehicles'
Transport Canada reveals number of complaints regarding shattered sunroofs on vehicles
WATCH: Transport Canada data reveals a sharp increase in the number of complaints about shattering vehicle sunroofs – Oct 24, 2017

Shayla Lovic and her husband, from Brampton Ont., were driving to a doctor’s appointment for their then three-month-old daughter on a quiet February morning this year when they heard what sounded like “an explosion.”

The roof of their 2016 Volkswagen Jetta had just shattered into tiny pieces. When Lovic, still confused about what had happened, turned to the rear passenger seat, she saw her infant daughter covered in glass, the 26-year old marketing manager recently recalled in an interview with Global News.

The baby was unharmed, it turned out, but the sunroof shattering caused the car, which was traveling on Highway 427, to swerve. Thankfully it was around midday and there were no other vehicles around, she said.

Lovic’s story, which made news at the time, isn’t the first of its kind – or even the first to have made it to the media. Global News has reported on a number of such cases, including, most recently, that of Jim Ashe, a Calgary realtor, who in 2015 also got a scare from a loud noise while driving and pulled over to find the sunroof of his Buick shattered.

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WATCH: An increasing number of drivers has been calling for an investigation into exploding sunroofs, Tony Tighe reports.

But instances of shattering sunroofs are becoming more and more common on Canada’s roads, according to data provided to Global News by Transport Canada.

The number of such complaints went from zero in 2007 to over 110 in 2016. The tally as of Oct. 16 of this year stood at 103 incidents.

Transport Canada has recorded 351 complaints about shattering sunroofs since the year 2000. Here are the affected car brands and models:

Brand# of ComplaintsModel# of Complaints
RAM2F150 (FORD)4
Total (Oct 16, 2017)351SRX (CADILLAC)4
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South of the border, Americans have filed over 850 complaints about shattering sunroofs with the U.S. federal government between 1995 and September of 2017, according to Consumer Reports.

Why are sunroofs ‘exploding?’

When sunroofs break they are meant to shatter into very small pieces for safety reasons, Global News heard from Chris Davies, head of research and development at Belron, the world’s leading vehicle glass repair company, which owns Canada’s Speedy Glass and Lebeau Vitres d’autos, among others.
Barring manufacturing defects, the glass isn’t sharp and the pieces are small, so the greater danger might come from the “fright factor” to drivers, who could potentially lose control of the vehicle, said Davies.

READ MORE: Saskatoon woman pushes for vehicle recall after sunroof shatters

What generally causes the glass to shatter is accidental damage, said Davies. A rock or even something as small as a pebble hitting the glass can cause it to shatter, especially if the glass has already been subjected to significant stress.

Indeed, “the majority of complaints received by Transport Canada involved breakage due to impact,” the agency told Global News via email.

The spike in complaints, according to Transport Canada, is simply to due to the fact that sunroofs are becoming more popular and Canadians are buying cars with larger and larger glass ceilings.

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“The increase in the number of complaints might be attributed to more vehicles on the road equipped with larger sunroofs,” Transport Canada wrote.

The larger the sunroof, the higher the “likelihood of contact with an airborne projectile, such as a piece of ice, gravel or other debris,” the agency noted.

WATCH: ‘I thought the back window had been shot’: Driver describes sunroof exploding

Click to play video: '‘I thought the back window had been shot’: Driver describes sunroof exploding'
‘I thought the back window had been shot’: Driver describes sunroof exploding

Manufacturing defects

Sometimes, however, manufacturing defects also play a role.

“A small number of sunroofs may have been manufactured incorrectly,” Transport Canada said of the shattering sunroof reports it has received so far.

Indeed, a Transport Canada defect investigation into the Kia Sorento for model years 2011,2012 and 2013 led to the recall of over 10,000 SUVs in March of 2016.

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READ MORE: Another sunroof explosion in B.C. highlights safety concerns

And Transport Canada is currently pursuing another such defect investigation into the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport.

The Hyundai Santa Fe currently tops the ranks of car models for which Transport Canada has received shattering sunroof complaints.

READ MORE: West Vancouver woman reports panoramic sunroof of her Hyundai Santa Fe exploding.

Hyundai began offering panoramic sunroofs, which extend from the front seat to the back, in its most popular vehicle, the Santa Fe Sport, in 2013, Hyundai Canada told Global News via email.

“The company tracks claims regarding broken panoramic sunroofs and, despite increasing the availability of the sunroofs across its product range, the frequency of claims relative to the high volume of products sold with the feature sold is very low,” the company noted.

“As always, Hyundai Auto Canada is fully supportive and cooperative of Transport Canada initiatives,” the company said in reference to the investigation.

Transport Canada said it can’t provide comment on the Santa Fe investigation because it is ongoing.

WATCH: Are sunroofs a safety hazard?

Tempered glass, high temperatures and manufacturing snafus

Sometimes, it doesn’t take much for a sunroof to shatter.

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Granted, sunroofs are meant to be tough. They are made of so-called tempered glass, the same stuff that manufacturers rely on for the glass used in side windows, explained Belron’s Davies.

“Tempered glass means you heat the glass up and then rapidly cool it down, which causes compression stress. That in-built stress actually makes it [tougher],” he said.

That normally ensures the glass will resist to repeated mechanical knocks and damage from opening and closing the sunroof, for example.

However, a flawed vehicle design that puts permanent stress on the glass or a botched cooling process could cause the glass to eventually shatter spontaneously.

READ MORE: Maple Ridge family says sunroof in their brand-new truck inexplicably shattered while driving

The most common manufacturing issues, though, is contaminated glass.

The presence of nickel sulfide, for example, can put additional stress on a sunroof when the crystal expands at higher temperatures, Davies said.

In the summer, a glass car roof can easily reach temperatures of 80-90º C, he added, especially if it is tinted, as many sunroofs are.

In cases involving issues around the quality of the glass, even leaving your car parked in direct sunlight during the hot season may increase the chance of the sunroof shattering, Davies said.

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“The glass manufacturer works hard in order to eliminate all these sorts of contamination issues, but sometimes these things slip through the quality control.”

Shown the data that Global News received from Transport Canada, Davies said he did not see “a smoking gun,” either in terms of the increase in overall complaints or the breakdown of such complaints by car brand and model.

“The numbers I saw weren’t high numbers of any particular model,” he said, but the data doesn’t show who manufactured the sunroofs in question. The issue may stem from a common sunroof manufacturer or glass supplier, he added.

WATCH: Okanagan couple warns other drivers of sunroof danger

Hard to tell a pebble from a manufacturing defect when the sunroof shatters

Lovic, for her part, isn’t too impressed with the notion that sunroof glass, if broken, is meant to explode into tiny, granular pieces rather than sharp shards.

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“I don’t want any chunks falling,” she told Global News. “I don’t understand how a pebble can cause so much damage to such a supposedly reliable vehicle.”

When Lovic brought the Jetta to her local Volkswagen dealership, she was told the incident had been caused by something hitting the roof.

“We understand the customer appreciated that the damage to the roof was caused by an outside influence,” Volkswagen Canada said in an emailed statement.

WATCH:  First-hand account of exploding sunroof

But Lovic expressed doubts about that when speaking with Global News. The highway was deserted when her sunroof exploded and she didn’t hear anything hit the car, she said.

It can be “very difficult” to tell whether a sunroof shattering was caused by external impact or whether a manufacturing issue also played a role, said Davies.

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That determination, though, might make a difference for insurance purposes. Though auto insurance covers the cost of replacing a sunroof hit by, say, a pebble, car owners might have to pay a deductible on their claim.

In the case of a manufacturing defect, on the other hand, the full cost might be on the manufacturer.

Lovic said the Volkswagen dealership quoted her over $2,000 for repairing the sunroof but eventually agreed to pay for the cost of the new glass. Lovic paid for labour, spending around $500.

The couple is still driving the Jetta, she said.

As to the sunroof, “it’s shut. We never use it.”

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