Tips On How To Handle A Car On Fire

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What to do when you find yourself in a burning car

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There are roughly six million car accidents in the USA per year. In 2019, 189,500 of those involved a car on fire. The statistics for car fires go back to 1980 when the figure was 456,000 of all accidents. It has been in decline ever since, with 1988 being the only anomaly. This is most likely due to mass production cars moving away from carburetors to fuel injection. However, car fires shouldn't be ignored because of their infrequency. As humans, we tend to think that something unusual as this can't possibly happen to us. And then it does, and we have no clue how to handle the situation.

The statistics are even more petrifying once one looks closer. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) claims that 20% of the fires it responds to are vehicle fires. According to the US Fire Administration's most recent figures, 83% of vehicle fires involved passenger cars. The average fatality rate per 1,000 fires is 2.9 people, and the average financial loss is $7,290. The latter figure is the calculation of the vehicle(s) lost and property damages. Life is undeniably worth more than $7,000.

Car On Fire unsplash.com

Most Common Causes of Car Fires

Why do cars catch on fire? Well, to create fire, you need three things: a heat source, oxygen, and fuel. An internal combustion engine has all of these, but while the risk of fire has decreased with advances in technology, there are some common flaws and car safety tips we can point out:

  • Inflammable liquid leaks: There are all sorts of hoses, seals, valves, and caps that can erode over time. Some parts may even be missing, like the oil filler cap. Spillage in the engine bay isn't a problem by itself, as it needs to be combined with something else to create fire. That's why regular maintenance is so essential.
  • Faulty electrical systems: The smallest frayed wire can create a spark that can initiate a fire. A pool of combustible liquid mentioned above is a prime example. Still, faulty wiring leading to an upgraded sound system in the trunk can just as easily ignite a piece of carpet. Electrical faults are the number one cause of car fires. Electrical systems (and battery in particular) are a significant fire risk.
  • Engine overheating: An overheating engine will not catch fire by itself. But throw in combustible liquids dropping in just the right place and some oxygen, and you have the necessary trifecta. Read more about overheating here.
  • Catalytic converters: Cats (which we discuss in detail here) have a high operating temperature but are well-insulated. However, a clogged catalytic converter can quickly reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, nearly double the average operating temperature. This is much more than the standard insulation is meant to handle. Most catalytic converters are situated beneath the cabin, which is full of stuff that burns nicely.
  • Cargo and smoking: Carrying a plastic container filled with gas in the trunk is a bad idea. In hot weather, the gas expands and it has corrosive properties. In due course, a large chunk of the trunk floor will be covered in highly flammable gas. The same is true for many other chemicals that are flammable like motor oil, chlorine, or even brake fluid. Needless to say, smoking a cigarette in the car is always a fire risk.
  • Arson: It seems odd, but a large number of vehicle fires are the result of arson. Culprits range from bored teenagers to protestors, to fraudsters. An insurance claim might seem like an easy way to make cash when you're down and out, but investigators have methods of proving intentional burning.
  • Car accidents: The forces in play during a car accident are violent. These forces are more than enough to dislocate fuel lines or even crack open an engine block. Combine this with latent heat, possible electronics glitching, and some sparks, and you have a fire.
  • Design flaws: Even the most respectable automotive manufacturers make mistakes. A perfect example is the Ferrari 458 Italia, which had a bit of a burning problem when it was first launched. It caught fire due to a perfect storm of errors not noticed during the pre-production testing phase. Luckily, Ferrari caught the problem in time and made the necessary repairs.

Potential Warning Signs of a Car Fire

Now that you know why a car catches fire, you should be able to identify the early warning signs of a car fire. Here are a few indications that a car has caught on fire or may be about to:

  • The smell of burning plastic is never a good sign. Don't ignore it and hope it will go away. Pull over immediately, wait for the engine to cool down a bit, and then investigate the problem.
  • Gas has a very distinctive smell, and it should never enter the cabin. If you can smell fuel on the inside, something is wrong.
  • A high engine temperature is a sign of severe mechanical malfunction. It may not lead to a fire, but it's worth investigating.
  • If the temperature inside the car is higher than it should be, it's also worth investigating. A malfunctioning catalytic converter's heat will eventually find its way into the cabin.
  • A smoking motor is never a good sign. White smoke is usually the engine overheating, while darker smoke indicates a fire has already started.
  • If you struggle with fuses blowing all the time, it's a sure sign that something is wrong on the electrical side. Since this is the number one cause of car fires, it's worth diagnosing correctly.
  • While hotrod flames may be a bold aesthetic choice on some sports car models, actual flames emanating from under the hood are no joke. As silly as it may sound, some people ignore this clear sign.
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What to Do When the Car is on Fire

If you're sure the car is on fire, follow these fire safety instructions:

  • Don't panic or act erratically.
  • Pull over to the side of the road when it's safe to do so, and turn off the engine.
  • Unlatch your safety belt and ensure you can move freely before helping other passengers. When it comes to kids, help the younger ones first as they may struggle to unlatch their child seats. Remember to keep an eye on the traffic as well. The fire is obviously the number one danger, but it doesn't reduce the inherent risk of parking in a spot where vehicles are still moving at high speeds.
  • Move away from the vehicle. The heat is going to be fierce, and the tires may explode. The sound of tires going up in flames can be disturbing, but at least it's not an exploding car. Any flammable substances in the car may also cause an explosion. The higher the fuel level in the tank, the longer the fire will last.
  • When everyone is safely out of the car and at a safe distance, phone for help.
Burning Car Pexels.com

Car Fire Safety Tips

There are some pretty obvious things you shouldn't do, like smoking in your car. It's terrible for you and your vehicle, 'mkay. It's also best not leave any flammable items in the car. If you're not sure whether or not something is flammable, it should say so on the label. Obvious explosive items include gasoline, chlorine, lighter fluid, alcohol, and aerosol cans. Did you know nail polish is flammable, too?

Regular maintenance should ensure that there are no fuel leaks or electrical problems, and if you need some guidance on a maintenance schedule, check it out here. But before you spend money you don't have, try these tricks to check for problems:

  • Fuses that blow regularly are a sure sign of electrical problems.
  • To see whether your car is leaking, park it over some newspaper after driving it. To see if the leaked fluid is flammable, try to light the newspaper with a match. It's not the safest tactic, but better than a car engine that explodes. Just do this in a safe space.

Conclusion

Vehicle fires don't happen as often as regular crashes, but they're frequent enough to worry about. The big takeaway from this article is that around 50% of the causes of car fires can be eliminated via regular inspections and common sense.

If your vehicle catches fire while driving, you should pull over as soon as it's safe, get yourself and the front and rear passengers out of the car immediately and move away from it before alerting the fire department. A car burning out happens much faster than you think. In most cases, cars will burn out completely before the fire department even arrives.

Car After Fire unsplash.com

FAQs

Should I keep a vehicle fire extinguisher in the car?

It's not a bad idea at all, especially if you're driving your family around in a station wagon. If the fire is still small, you may be able to extinguish it, but don't try to be a hero. A fire extinguisher costs anywhere between $50 to $400, but there are cheaper aerosol alternatives for small fires. They start at around $13.

Should I drive faster, hoping the fire goes out?

Definitely not. Putting more stress on the engine will only increase the heat and force oxygen in, which will feed the fire.

Will safe driving decrease the risk of a fire?

Safe driving should always be a given. Using defensive driving techniques, you can sometimes spot problems before they even happen. The vast majority of car crashes don't result in a fire, but it's never a bad idea to drive safely.

Does insurance pay for a car totaled in a car fire?

When it comes to insurance, there is never a simple yes or no answer. Comprehensive car insurance will generally cover a fire caused by an electrical fault, when another fire spreads to a car, or in the case of a car thief burning a car to destroy evidence. A fire caused by a car accident is also usually covered, as are fires caused by a defective engine. Natural disasters usually aren't covered, and arson is another gray area.

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