How many fatal and serious injury accidents should it take to require federal regulation? Hundreds of people die every year when they are ejected from their sunroofs during roll-over accidents. But the popular feature isn’t regulated like windshields, or even side windows. Now one automaker has invented sunroof airbags and the NHTSA has begun to consider ways to solve this fatal problem.
Sunroofs Are a Popular Option With a Fatal Problem
American motorists love to have freedom while they are driving. In the past several years, this has translated into a higher number of sunroofs on the roads. In 2017, 40% of new cars and light trucks in the U.S. had a sunroof – that’s about 7 million vehicles. By comparison, in 2011, sunroofs were only in a third of new cars.
But the rise in the use of sunroofs comes with an increased risk of serious, often fatal injury in a roll-over accident. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) said between 1997 and 2008 about 300 people were killed and 1,400 were injured every year because of the feature. In a separate study in 2016, the NHTSA found that between 2002 and 2012, 230 people were killed and 500 were injured just from ejections when sunroofs were closed.
NHTSA Regulations Don’t Cover Sunroofs
The problem is that NHTSA regulations that protect motorists from being ejected through windshields and side windows don’t apply to sunroofs. In 2011, the NHTSA issued a safety standard to prevent occupants from being ejected from their vehicles through the side windows. As of last year, all new vehicles must have safety equipment, such as curtain airbags, designed to keep an “unbelted adult from moving more than four inches past the side window opening in the event of a crash.” The agency estimated the new mandate would cost $31 per vehicle and could save over 350 lives and 475 injuries every year.
But those same regulations don’t apply to sunroofs in the top of vehicles. Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the New York Times:
“We know that there are fatalities and injuries. . . . And it is a solvable problem.”
The NHTSA acknowledges the risk exists, but says it doesn’t have a way to test it. In a statement, the agency said it was “actively looking into this issue and continues to analyze information related to the structural integrity of sunroofs” and that it was “evaluating factors that reduce passenger ejection.” In 2017, NHTSA researchers announced a “viable performance test” to gauge the strength of the glass in a sunroof and its anchor points. Until it can gather information from that test, there likely won’t be any regulations.
Hyundai Mobis Develops Sunroof Airbags for Ejection Mitigation
Auto manufacturers have already begun to take proactive steps to protect against sunroof ejection. Volvo and Ford have begun to use laminated glass instead of tempered glass. Ford originally objected to the suggestion, saying the shatter-proof glass also used in windshields could cause head and neck injuries in a collision. But it has since begun installing laminated glass sunroofs in some models “depending on engineering requirements” according to company spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt.
Now the South Korean auto-industry supplier, Hyundai Mobis, says it has found a better solution to the roll-over accident problem: sunroof airbags. These airbags, which could be available first in Hyundai and Kia vehicles, are designed to provide protection whether the sunroof is open or closed. Using the same airbag-and-tether concept currently applied to side window protections, the sunroof airbags could keep motorists inside the vehicle even if they aren’t wearing a seatbelt.
Sunroof regulations have been a hole in auto safety for too long. With hundreds of fatal rollover accidents happening every year, it is up to auto manufacturers and regulatory agencies alike to step up in favor of consumer safety.