What To Do If Your Car Catches Fire

Posted on by Defensive Driving Team | in Defensive Driving Tips

Although not the most common driving emergency, fire is certainly one of the scariest and potentially one of the most dangerous. In 2004, the American Automobile Association reported 266,000 car fires, which resulted in 520 deaths. It’s interesting to note that 75% of these fires were caused by poor maintenance rather than collisions. With this in mind, let’s begin by discussing how to prevent fires.

Preventing a fire

First, have your car serviced regularly according to the schedule recommended by its manufacturer. When adding oil, use a funnel and check carefully for spills, as spilled or leaking oil can start a fire under the hood. If you have a gas station attendant add oil, check to make sure that the cap is replaced securely. It may sound pedantic, but mistakes happen; a missing cap could easily result in a fire. Make sure that checks of the electrical and fuel systems, the two most common causes of fires, are included in your service schedule. If you notice that fuses blow repeatedly, make sure to have this problem checked; it could indicate a more serious electrical issue.

Responding to a fire

While an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, sometimes the cure is necessary. If you notice smoke, fire, or a burning smell while driving, stop immediately. While in many instances smoke will not actually be the result of a fire, it nonetheless indicates a serious problem. Also pay attention to your gauges while driving; if the car begins to overheat, pull over and allow the engine to cool before more serious problems develop.

Stop as soon as you notice a problem and immediately turn off the car. If possible, pull over in a safe place first; however, driving will provide additional air to the fire, fanning the flames. If there is a large amount of smoke or you can actually see the fire, stop where you are. Other cars will go out of their way to avoid a burning car.

Then, get all passengers out of the car and make sure everyone moves far away from the vehicle. Car explosions are rare; the explosions you see in movies are triggered by explosives, not by an exploding gas tank. Still, they can happen. Additionally, burning oil and plastics give off toxic fumes. Make sure you have moved far enough away so as not to inhale these. Warn others near you or passing by to give the car a wide berth.

Next, if there is a fire, call 911. If not sure, err on the side of caution. It is better to be a bit embarrassed than to place yourselves and others in serious danger.

Putting out the fire

First, remember that it is more important to save lives than to save your car. Make your own safety and the safety of your passengers your priority. Only try to put out the fire if you have the necessary equipment, skill, and knowledge to do so safely. This will be more effective if the fire is small; if it is already large by the time your escape the car, it’s better to call 911.

If you are concerned about car fires, you can prepare by installing a fire extinguisher in your car. This should be a class ABC extinguisher (meaning it can put out any kind of fire) and should weigh at least five pounds. Make sure this extinguisher is within reach of the driver’s seat (i.e. somewhere in the passenger compartment) and that you know how to use it.

If you can, grab the extinguisher as you exit the car. If the fire is under the hood, pop the hood but do not open it fully, as the sudden influx of air could turn a small fire into a big one. Spray through the opening with the fire extinguisher. If inside the car, leave one door open and spray accordingly. If the fire is near the rear of the car, i.e. close to the gas tank, move away from the car quickly and warn others to do the same.

Finally, remember that fire damage is covered by comprehensive insurance policies. Because assessing fires can be a lengthy process, make sure to notify your insurance company of the fire as soon as possible.

The most important thing is to remain calm, think quickly and clearly, and put people before possessions. Here’s a brief recap of the steps to take:

1. Stop.
2. Turn off the car.
3. Get everyone out of the car.
4. Move far away from the car and warn others.
5. Call 911 to alert the fire department.
6. If the fire is small and there is an extinguisher to hand, consider attempting to put out the fire. Err on the side of caution when making this judgement.

To read more on a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

For more great driving safety tips, discounts for auto insurance or point reduction check out our online defensive driving course.

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