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What to Do If Your Car Catches Fire

© Provided by Consumers Union of United States, Inc.

By Patrick Olsen, Consumer Reports

It can be terrifying when the car you’re riding in catches fire, seeing flames or smoke coming from the hood or even inside the vehicle.

Car fires have been in the news a lot lately. Earlier this year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation involving 3 million Hyundai and Kia models over concerns that they could burst into flames without being in a crash. More than 3,000 such incidents have been documented by the automakers, according to NHTSA. Both automakers said when the investigation started that they’re cooperating with federal regulators.

Videos and photographs of fires involving Tesla’s electric cars have gone viral. In response, a company spokeswoman directed CR to the automaker’s Vehicle Safety Report, updated earlier this month. In it, the automaker said: “From 2012–2018, there has been approximately one Tesla vehicle fire for every 170 million miles traveled. By comparison, data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation shows that in the United States there is a vehicle fire for every 19 million miles traveled.”

The truth is, vehicle fires are a common occurrence in this country, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There were an estimated 171,500 highway vehicle fires in the U.S. each year from 2014 through 2016, the last year for which data is available. A vast majority—more than 142,000—were fires involving passenger vehicles, FEMA says. That's an average of just under 400 fires per day.

Counting all highway vehicle fires, there were an average of 345 deaths, 1,300 injuries, and about $1.1 billion in damage each year from 2014-2016, FEMA says. According to data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), collisions were a contributing factor in only about 5 percent of highway vehicle fires, but they were responsible for 60 percent of fatal highway vehicle fires.

Mechanical failure or malfunction was cited in 45 percent of vehicle fires from 2014-2016, and electrical problems played a role in more than 1 in 5 fires.

Factors Contributing to Car Fires

Mechanical failure or malfunction

Electrical failure or malfunction, including a leak or break in a component

Misuse of material or product, like spilling flammable liquid too close to car

Source: National Fire Data Center.

What to Do If Your Car Catches Fire

Vehicle fires can spread rapidly, so you need to respond quickly:

  • First, pull over and shut off the engine. This stops the flow of fuel.
  • Get yourself and your passengers out of the car as quickly as possible. Make sure to stay a significant distance away—100 to 150 feet or more—and never go back into the vehicle to retrieve personal property, FEMA says.
  • Call 911 or have another motorist make the call to get emergency services on their way as soon as possible.
  • Attempt to put out the fire only if you have clear access to the source, have a suitable fire extinguisher, know how to use it correctly, and can maintain a safe distance away from the car. Only use an extinguisher approved for Class B or Class C fires; a label on the extinguisher will identify which kind of fire it's suitable for.
  • Never open the hood or trunk if you suspect there’s a fire there; the additional air flowing in could cause the fire to enlarge.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Never stand on an active roadway. If you’re parked by the side of the road, stay far behind the vehicle to avoid being hit if another car strikes your vehicle.

How to Avoid a Car Fire

You can take steps to make sure your car doesn’t catch fire in the first place:

  • Have your car serviced regularly by a professional mechanic, says John Ibbotson, chief mechanic for CR. If you spot leaks or your car isn't running properly, get it checked. A well-maintained car is less likely to have a fire. Become familiar with oil levels and engine temperatures during normal operation of your car.
  • If you must transport gasoline, carry only a small amount in a certified gas can that's sealed, the NFPA suggests. Keep a window open for ventilation.
  • Gas cans and propane cylinders should never be transported in the passenger compartment, the NFPA says.
  • Never park a car where flammables, such as grass, are touching the catalytic converter, which can reach temperatures above 1,000 degrees F.

The NFPA says to look for danger signs that a fire could be possible down the road:

  • Beware of the smell of burning rubber or plastic.
  • Check for cracked or loose wiring or electrical problems, including a fuse that blows more than once.
  • Check for oil or fluid leaks.
  • Make sure the oil cap is securely tightened.
  • Watch for rapid changes in fuel or oil levels, or notable increases in engine temperature.

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