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How Often Do Cars Catch on Fire?

Published on Jul 23, 2019 by Thomas Law Offices.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, it’s estimated that 171,500 highway fires occur across the United States every year. Highway vehicle fires account for fires in passenger vehicles, freight road transport vehicles, and agricultural or construction vehicles.

Approximately one in eight fires responded to by fire departments is a highway vehicle fire. The majority of those fires, which originated from the engine, running gear, or wheel area, occur in passenger vehicles. As a result, 345 deaths, 1,300 injuries, and $1.1 billion in property loss happens annually.

Historically, vehicle fires were more common. Since the 1970s and 80s, however, car manufacturers began making design changes to reduce the chances of heat, fuel, and oxygen coming together. Today, the majority of car crashes do not result in fire. But when an accident does, those involved are at serious risk for burns and other injuries. In order to reduce the chances of a vehicle catching fire, it’s important to understand the top causes of vehicular fires.

Top Causes of Car Fires

Cars catch fire for a number of reasons. Most issues are mechanical or electrical. The most common danger signs that indicate a car may catch fire include oil or fluid leaks, rapid changes in fuel levels or engine temperature, and cracked or loose wiring.

  • Car Accidents. Many vehicles today are well-designed with crumple zones that protect internal spots like the engine, battery, and gas tank in the event of an accident. But when, for example, a tractor-trailer hits a smaller vehicle, the chances of leaking fluids coming in close proximity to heat is more likely.
  • Fuel System Leaks. A fuel system leak is incredibly dangerous. Gasoline is the most corrosive and flammable fluid a car carries. It can quickly catch fire from a single spark.
  • Electrical System Failures. A car’s electrical system runs from the hood, throughout the entire vehicle – including into door, under carpets, and through powered seats. Faulty wiring or a bad battery can quickly lead to a fire.
  • Poor Maintenance. Forgetting or neglecting to take care of your vehicle can increase the chances of a fire. Letting broken parts, faulty wiring, or leaky seals go unfixed can create flammable conditions.
  • Design Flaws. While it’s unlikely that a design flaw will cause a fire on its own, they can create conditions that lead to an eventual fire.
  • Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Batteries. While companies like Tesla Motors initially claimed electric and hybrid vehicle batteries were immune to problems, this is not the case. With a number of these vehicles, leaking coolant interacted with damaged batteries to cause a spark.
  • Overheating Catalytic Converters. One of the hottest parts of a car is the exhaust system. Catalytic converters can overheat when they work too hard to burn off exhaust pollutants. When a catalytic converter is left to continuously overheat, it can cause damage to the surrounding parts and result in a fire.
  • Overheating Engines. While an overheated engine most likely isn’t going to burst into flames, it can increase the temperatures of fluids like oil and coolant. If those fluids begin to spill out of their designated areas, they could spread throughout the engine bay and ignite.
  • Spilled Fluids. The typical vehicle has a number of flammable fluids. The most common include gasoline, engine oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, and power steering fluid. When, for example, a car crash causes one or more of those fluids to leak, a fire could start.
  • Arson. When someone decides to set a car on fire purposely, it’s usually to cover up a crime like left or insurance fraud.

What To Do if Your Car Is on Fire

If you see smoke or flames or smell burning rubber or plastic, you must respond immediately. Following the steps below, which are provided by the National Fire Protection Association, will reduce your chances of being seriously injured or burned.

  • Pull Over. The moment you believe your car is catching fire, you must signal your intent to get off the road, pull over to a safe location where you’re not blocking traffic, and put your vehicle in park. If you are stuck in heavy traffic with no way to get off the road, turn your hazard lights on and put the vehicle in park.
  • Turn Off the Engine. Once the vehicle has stopped completely, turn the engine off. This will reduce the changes of flames igniting if there is only smoke.
  • Get Everyone Out. While you should never return to a burning car for personal belongings, it’s crucial to help all passengers get out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.
  • Move Back. Move as far away from the vehicle as possible, at least 100 feet. In the event of an explosion, being far away will reduce the chances of additional injuries.
  • Call 911. Once you’ve completed the steps above, call 911. Emergency responders should arrive at the scene promptly and do what they need to do to put the fire out.

As mentioned, car fires are not incredibly common, but they do happen. When a car accident victim suffers burn injuries, it’s likely they’ll be dealing with pain, medical treatments, and time off work for a significant amount of time. If you’ve been injured in a car crash in Illinois that you believe was not your fault, you may have grounds to file a personal injury claim. Our Chicago auto accident lawyers can review your case and determine if you may be eligible for compensation to cover your losses. To learn more, contact us today.

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Tad Thomas - Trial Lawyer

Tad Thomas

Managing Partner

Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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