One's windshield crack starts bout of brooding

July 26, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The crack in my windshield starts at a point just above the passenger-side wiper, meanders north like a country road for a few inches, then slashes sharply to the east.

I can go days without noticing it. But it seems to annoy my passengers.

"What's that?" asks a friend, moments after seating herself.

"That's a crack in my windshield," I answer.

"Oh."

(Pause.)

"So, are you planning to get it fixed?" she asks.

"Yeah," I respond, testily. "Sooner or later."

Actually, it has been later rather than sooner, which means that I have spent more time than is probably healthy, brooding over this crack in my windshield.

My musings have gone like this: Through all the years of my youth, my father never had a crack in any of his windshields, and yet, here is one in mine. And now I observe that several passing cars also have cracks in their windshields. And I observe, too, that there appears to be a proliferation of shops dedicated to nothing other than repairing cracks in people's windshields. A whole industry of windshield glass-repair specialists seems to have sprung into being overnight.

Therefore, I suspect a conspiracy. I suspect that automobile manufacturers are not making windshields the way they used to.

"Well, I've heard that speculation before, but I can't say there's anything to it, one way or the other," says Lea Gilpin, when I take my suspicions to him. Mr. Gilpin is manager of the department that certifies auto repair shops for the American Automobile Association of Maryland.

"So, this has come up before?" I ask.

"Yeah, it has. One member wanted to know if there could be grounds for a lawsuit against a particular manufacturer. But there are too many variables. It may be the windshields. Or it may be construction of the roads -- maybe stones are more likely to pop up and hit you than they were before. Or it might just be coincidence. Darned if I can say with authority, one way or the other."

My father confirms that he has had to replace a windshield only once, in 40 years of driving -- and that was recently. A retired engineer, my father once tested windshields for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, I found out.

"The problem could be faulty installation," he speculates. "We did some stress tests in the mid-1960s, and it didn't take much for us to crack them."

The Consumer Federation of America referred me to the people who produce "The Car Book," an annual consumer information guide. The people who produce "The Car Book" referred me to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. The people there referred me to the engineers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The engineers were busy.

"Just tell me whether I am wasting my time pursuing this," I ask a manager of Safelite Auto Glass, in the city.

"We aren't allowed to give interviews with the press without permission from our corporate offices," answers the manager. "But off the record? I think you're wasting your time."

"I haven't seen any reports or surveys addressing the issue," says Denise Bigler, communications manager at Safelite's corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio. "I know windshields are bigger than they used to be, 10 to 20 years ago. Or it could just be an awareness thing -- you've got a crack in your windshield and so now you notice others more."

Ms. Bigler consults Safelite's market analysts and calls me back. It turns out that 7.8 percent of all passenger vehicles have some kind of windshield damage each year, and the percentage remains pretty consistent. But there are more cars on the road and they are used more often. "So, it was just your time," says Ms. Bigler.

Meanwhile, the crack in my windshield starts at a point just above the passenger-side wiper, meanders north like a country road for a few inches, then slashes sharply to the east. I can go days without noticing it. But . . .

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