We've all had it happen—you are driving down the road when all of a sudden a piece of gravel smacks your windshield. Dang! There's a small divot in the windshield and you know it won't be long before that divot becomes a crack and you'll need to replace the entire windshield.
Small pieces of gravel generally cause only minor damage to windshields. But if the ding is deep enough, it can cause structural damage to the window. This means that the window becomes much more sensitive to changes in temperature and what would normally not be a problem can be a big one.
There have been times, with my car, that I've noticed a small rock ding in the window, but the next morning that ding had turned into a crack that ran all the way across the window. The culprit is temperature changes—cold weather will cool down your car's windshield, and then when you turn on the defroster the next morning or park the car in the sunlight, uneven heating of the window puts stress on the new weak spot in the window and a crack forms.
If you catch the ding early enough, you can visit almost any windshield shop and have some clear epoxy applied so that the ding is strengthened. If you allow the ding to start forming a crack, then you will need to visit the same windshield shop to have the windshield replaced. (Trust me—it is much cheaper to get the ding fixed than it is to replace the entire windshield.)
Even if your windshield cracks, it doesn't mean that it is going to fall out as you drive. Windshields are really a high-strength mix of tempered safety glass and clear plastic. The plastic is sandwiched between two layers of glass. This means that your crack would need to break through three layers in order to have your windshield actually fall out—a very unlikely scenario.
If something much bigger than gravel hits your windshield, however, it is possible that it will shatter and either deform or fall out completely. If this happens as you are driving, you should immediately signal and pull over to the side of the road. Turn on your hazard lights and breathe deeply until you regain your composure. (It can be quite surprising to have your windshield shatter on you.) If the glass shattered because of a deliberate act, such as someone throwing something at your vehicle, make sure you call the police or highway patrol.
Don't try to knock out the window while you are still moving. This will distract you from driving and you could get cut by the glass. Modern windshields don't truly shatter and splinter; they break apart in to small pieces that won't easily cut you. However, if they are flying through the air at the same rate as your moving car, you could get cut.
If you are unable to get a tow-truck's assistance you can drive the car by taking the proper precautions. Place a cloth or newspaper over the dashboard, wrap your hand in thick cloth, and knock out the glass with something heavy or with your fist. Remove the remaining pieces with gloves or the cloth. Close the car windows and drive to a garage, wearing glasses or sunglasses if possible, to protect your eyes from stray bits of glass.
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