WASHINGTON — By Kenneth Cole
Detroit News Washington Bureau
Maya Donnett might have walked somewhere today had her rental car’s replacement windshield not popped out like a jack-in-the-box two years ago. Instead, the former condominium saleswoman navigates her apartment in the motorized wheelchair she’s been confined to since breaking her neck in the 1996 crash.
“It’s a big switch, going from international saleswoman to this,” the 45-year-old Bethesda, Md., careerist said. “It humbles you.”
Auto safety experts and glass manufacturers argue Donnett’s life-altering injury was avoidable. They contend her story personifies the need to prescribe standards and regulations for the after-market windshield business.
The reason: The windshield over the years has become integral to overall occupant protection. Yet federal regulators don’t monitor windshields — or any other auto part — not installed as original equipment. Windshields are a particular concern.
Some after-market glass shops use lesser quality sealants to hold windshields in place, said Linda Barnett, director of industry development for the National Glass Association in McLean, Va. Many, she said, neglect to emphasize to their customers the importance of time and temperature in assuring the glass bonds correctly.
As a result, the panels often don’t adhere properly and are at greater risk of falling out under the pressure of a crash.
But “auto glass, the windshield in particular, has become a large part of the structural integrity of automobiles and a key safety device,” Barnett said.
Besides doing its traditional chores — stopping debris from flying inside the passenger compartment and motorists from being thrown outside a vehicle — the windshield now is critical to air-bag performance. More and more automakers are installing passenger-side air bags that fire first toward the thick panel of glass, letting it absorb potentially lethal force, before inflating toward the occupant. After deployment, the windshield helps position the air bag in front of an occupant.
And automakers depend on the heavy pieces of laminated glass to buttress vehicle roof strength and absorb some crushing forces in rollover crashes.
Federal regulators haven’t concluded decisively that the windshield helps stave off such crush, but Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said “common sense suggests it does.”
Anecdotal evidence supports such a conclusion, too. Ford Motor Co., in the late 1980s, tested the roof strength of its former Aerostar minivans with and without a windshield. It found the van’s roof buckled more without the glass panel.
“People would shudder if they realized the structural integrity of a vehicle’s roof depends on a piece of glass,” said Ralph Hoar, a Virginia auto safety consultant.
Donnett learned that fact in the most lamentable of ways. On Sept. 16, 1996, she flew from Manila, Philippines, to Kauai, Hawaii, for work. Fluent in Chinese, Donnett was stationed on the Asian island by Marriott Hotels, for which she sold posh time shares.
After leaving the airplane, she walked to National Car Rental. The only car available was a 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier that had had a replacement windshield installed hours earlier — the second one mounted in that car in six months.
Donnett was en route to a dinner party later that day. She was belted and estimates traveling “25 to 30 mph” on a snaky poorly lighted road when she inadvertently steered the car onto the soft shoulder. Something caused the Cavalier to roll over on its roof. Seconds after the car rolled over, the fresh windshield popped out and, Donnett alleges, contributed to her fate.
“I remember thinking, ‘Boy, I got myself in a real jam this time,'” Donnett said. “Then I realized I couldn’t push my arms away from the dashboard.”
In a lawsuit she filed against General Motors Corp., National Car Rental and Windshield Kauai, the company that mounted the glass, Donnett argues the panel was improperly installed and not given ample time to seal correctly.
A post-crash examination of the Cavalier for defects reached the same conclusion.
“There was virtually no adherence between the bonding material and the glass itself, so the glass just fell off for all intents and purposes,” said Richard Hille, co-owner of the Goleta, Calif., company that did the probe. “It’s the worst windshield installation I’ve ever seen with the exception of maybe one, where someone used foam tape.”
Donnett said the windshield’s popping out induced, in part, the collapse of the Cavalier’s front roof support pillars. That, she contended, allowed most of the car’s 2,600 pounds to cave in on her head and break her neck between the third and fourth vertebrae, leaving her a quadriplegic.
“National Car Rental has a duty to provide a car that’s safe,” said Jim Collins, the Menlo Park, Calif., attorney representing Donnett in the case that won’t go to trial until next year. “If they rent you a car with bad brakes, you’d hold them responsible. “Well, in this case it was a bad windshield.”
National Car Rental and Windshield Kauai failed to respond to multiple phone calls.
In a statement, GM said: “The Cavalier meets or far exceeds all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards, including roof strength.”
Auto safety advocates and glass industry lobbyists fear a rise in such injuries and lawsuits because of the volume of cracked, fissured and spider-webbed glass panels getting replaced — 11 million a year, the National Glass Association estimates.
The business has attracted more startup companies, and the association fears the increased competition for customers is prompting some glass shops to use cheaper, inferior sealants to bolster thinning profit margins.
Some even use butyl tape to hold a windshield in place and buy time for lesser quality urethane to seal. “But the tape takes up space that should be filled by urethane,” said the glass association’s Barnett.
Exacerbating the problem are cost-conscious insurance companies and impatient consumers.
Most insurers refuse to pay for anything beyond the price of the windshield and the time it takes to install it. But most adhesives require time — at least a day, frequently more — at the right temperature and humidity to seal correctly.
Replacement shops, however, can’t afford to let a vehicle just sit in a bay and eat up space that could be devoted to another paying customer. Customers welcome the rush, though. Most want their wheels back as soon as possible. Recognizing that, some shops send mobile units to parking lots to replace auto glass while vehicle owners work or shop.
“We want our glass in in an hour,” Barnett said. “Nobody gives a care about the conditions because nobody knows it makes a difference.”
The glass association is developing an “Industry Code of Practices/Standards” for its 4,000 members to use as a guideline in replacing windshields.
“Our primary concern is for the physical safety of consumers and the legal safety of the installing industry,” Barnett said.
She noted that her association, earlier this year, broached NHTSA about writing a rule governing windshield replacement but was told the agency only regulates automakers.
Patt Ardis, a Memphis, Tenn., attorney specializing in automobile glass cases, said the government should at least monitor auto glass replacements, given their frequency and importance to passenger safety.
“It’s a mistake to rely on glass for structural integrity to begin with,” Ardis said. “But since we do, we should at least have standards for what the glass — original or replacement — must do. “What we got now is a half-baked nothing.”
Donnett couldn’t agree more. She knows, however, it’s too late for such a standard to help her and is focusing on more practical matters.
“I recently got back some biceps and triceps movement and can now drive my own chair,” Donnett said. “Finally, I can do something on my own again.”