It happened without warning. Keisa King was driving her 2013 Nissan Altima on the Edens Expressway last December, when all of a sudden, “it was like an explosion, it was a huge boom.”
“I really thought I got shot at,” the Gurnee woman recalled.
Seconds later, a gush of wind and the sound of shattered glass forced King to pull off the road in a panic.
“My heart is racing. I’m driving. I’m trying to focus. I’m looking around. No one is on the road. Did my sunroof just explode?” King wondered.
NBC 5 Responds found that King’s sunroof did shatter, and she isn’t the only one who has experienced it. We found hundreds of complaints describing sunroofs spontaneously shattering, injuring and scaring drivers.
The scenario is playing out across the country, and it has captured the attention of federal safety regulators.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating 2011-2013 Kia Sorentos and has asked four more carmakers – including Nissan -- for information on a dozen different models with similar sunroofs. KIA Motors says it’s evaluating the performance of its tempered glass and has been cooperating with NHTSA’s investigation.
So what is causing sunroofs to explode?
Getting the answer can be daunting, according to glass expert Mark Meshulam, who points to three likely culprits. The most obvious: a rock or debris can pop up and hit a sunroof. A flaw can also be caused by installation. The hardest to predict are imperfections in the glass itself.
"Tempered glass can be like a ticking time bomb,” Meshulum told NBC 5 Responds. "There are little imperfections. They're like little stones. If they happen to be inside tempered glass there's potential that down the road that little stone will grow sufficiently to actually spontaneously break the glass.”
Proving your glass had an inherent flaw can be difficult because when tempered glass breaks, it shatters into hundreds of little pieces. If that happens, Meshulum said there is a way for drivers to protect themselves and any evidence of a manufacturer defect.
“If there is a glass break and the glass is still hanging there together, immediately put a piece of duct tape or clear strapping tape over the origin to hold it all together,” Meshulum advises. “You’ve got to do that right away because it will collapse and there goes your evidence,” Meshulum says.
Once the origin is stabilized, Meshulum recommends putting duct tape over the whole sunroof so motorists can drive safely and get it fixed.
“If you have an argument from a manufacturer, you can say here’s my evidence. Here is the flaw in the glass,” Meshulum said.
Back in Gurnee, King says Nissan refused to replace her shattered sunroof.
"We talked to the dealership and they told us that it was environmental, and I said ‘What does that mean?’"
King said it cost her $700 to replace, and it cost Nissan a customer.
"I'm completely done,” King told NBC 5 Responds. "I don't even feel comfortable driving my car because I don't know when this thing or if this thing can explode again."
In a statement, a Nissan spokesperson told NBC 5 Responds:
“The particular issue the customer encountered has not been a common occurrence in the Altima, and there are no related recalls or service campaigns active. We believe this is not the result of any design issue and therefore, it is a matter the owner should resolve with her insurance company for resolution.”
While Nissan says it’s not a common occurrence on Altima’s, NBC 5 Responds learned that Nissan has received at least 39 complaints of exploding sunroofs on its Murano and Pathfinder vehicles.