Is a Panoramic Sunroof Safe in a Rollover Crash?

Modern cars are put through rigorous testing to meet federal safety standards, but there are steps you can take to protect occupants

A panoramic sunroof seen in a Kia Sorento Photo: Robin Trajano/Kia

Panoramic sunroofs have become a common and desirable feature on new cars and SUVs, with the expansive glass making them feel more spacious. But thousands of people are killed each year in rollover crashes, so it is fair to ask whether these glass roofs are safe in rollover collisions.

When you look at the overall structural integrity of a vehicle, keep in mind that engineers use stringent performance standards and testing when building a car. Safeguards are developed to then protect against both common and uncommon crash situations. The government scrutinizes car models with crash tests designed to identify structural weaknesses and ensure that all volume production vehicles provide a prescribed level of protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also rates vehicles for roof strength as part of its vehicle ratings.

That said, government crash-test results have shown that the effect of a sunroof is insignificant to the overall strength of the roof. The structure of a car consists of a strong steel frame wrapped by relatively thin metal panels. That steel frame is what is helping to keep you safe. The high-strength steel used in the pillars that hold up the roof—called A, B, C, and D pillars, based on their location—is where the energy is being absorbed in a crash—not the center of the roof.

For more on sunroofs, see our 2017 investigation, "Exploding Sunroofs: Danger Overhead."

During a crash, passenger ejection is more likely the greater danger. The most important thing you can do to prevent being ejected from a vehicle is ensure that you and all passengers are wearing a seat belt at all times while the car is moving. This keeps everyone in their place, allowing the airbags and crush zones to do their job. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that unbelted occupants are up to 10 times more likely to be ejected from a vehicle during a crash and that passengers who are ejected from a vehicle in a serious crash face a much greater risk of being killed or experiencing life-changing injuries.

Another concern in a crash is broken glass. The better roofs use laminated glass—like a windshield—so the glass holds together when shattered. With others, the glass crumbles, rather than becoming sharp shards.

Some car manufacturers, including Hyundai, are developing roof airbags that can cover the entire ceiling of a car during a rollover, protecting passengers from ejection as well as broken glass. 

The bottom line is a buyer should feel assured that modern cars are put through rigorous testing to meet increasingly stringent federal safety standards. Do your research before buying a car to make sure the model has good safety rating, from crash tests through to stopping distances, and ideally identify that the panoramic roof is made from laminated glass. And always make sure you and your passengers are properly buckled up.

This article has been adapted from an episode of Talking Cars.