Tips: Reducing the Risk of Vehicle Fires

There were an estimated 278,000 vehicle fires in the United States in 2006, the lowest number since the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) began tracking this information in 1980. According to its recently released research report -- U.S. Vehicle Fire Trends and Patterns -- these fires caused 490 civilian deaths, 1,200 civilian injuries and $1.3 billion in direct property damage. NFPA and AAA have joined together to urge the public to be aware of the risks associated with vehicle fires and highlight steps that can be taken to help prevent these fires from occurring.

"The number of vehicle fires is clearly moving in the right direction, reaching its lowest point in more than 20 years," said Lorraine Carli, NFPA's vice president of communications. "This report helps us learn why these fires happen, which types of fires are more likely to kill or injure people, and what people can do to reduce these types of fires even further."

Other key findings from the report:

  • Overall, vehicle fires accounted for 17 percent of the 1,602,000 fires reported to U.S. fire departments, 15 percent of all civilian deaths, 7 percent of all civilian fire injuries, and 12 percent of the nation's direct property that year.
  • Highway vehicle fires totaled an estimated 250,000 in 2006, which caused 445 civilian deaths, 1,075 civilian fire injuries and $982 million in direct property damage. From 1980 to 2006, these fires fell a cumulative 45 percent, and from 2005 to 2006 highway vehicle fires fell 3 percent. (The term highway describes the type of vehicle, not the location of the fire.)
  • Only 3 percent of the highway vehicle fires were caused by collisions or overturns, but these incidents caused 57 percent of the deaths.
  • From 2002 to 2005, 50 percent of the highway vehicle fires and 11 percent of the deaths were caused by some form of mechanical failure or malfunction, such as leaks or breaks, back fires or worn out parts. Electrical failures or malfunctions caused 24 percent of the highway vehicle fires.
  • The vast majority of vehicle fires and losses from 2002 to 2005 involved highway vehicles. Within these four years, highway vehicles were involved in 94 percent of the 307,000 vehicle fires reported annually, 90 percent of the 520 associated deaths, 88 percent of the 1,640 associated injuries, and 76 percent of the $1.3 billion in direct property damage reported per year.
  • Highway vehicle fires tend to be more common during the summer months. Fridays and Saturdays were the peak days.
  • At most risk of highway vehicle fire deaths are teens and young adults. Twenty-six percent of the people killed in highway vehicle fires were between the ages of 15 and 24; this age group also has the highest risk of vehicle fire injury. Older adults at least age 85 had the second highest risk of vehicle fire deaths between the years 2002 and 2005.

"Many vehicle fires are preventable, and it's vital to take steps to reduce your risk of experiencing one," said John Nielsen, director, AAA Approved Auto Repair Network "Half of highway vehicle fires are caused by a mechanical failure, which highlights the importance of proper vehicle maintenance. Motorists can help avoid vehicle fires by following manufacturer's maintenance schedules and having a comprehensive inspection of their vehicle at least once a year by a trained, professional technician."

To reduce the risk of a vehicle fire, AAA recommends that you:

  • Have your vehicles inspected at least annually by a trained, professional technician.
  • Watch for fluid leaks under vehicles, cracked or blistered hoses, or wiring that is loose, has exposed metal or has cracked insulation. Have any of these conditions inspected and repaired as soon as possible.
  • Be alert to changes in the way your vehicle sounds when running, or to a visible plume of exhaust coming from the tailpipe. A louder than usual exhaust tone, smoke coming from the tailpipe or a backfiring exhaust could mean problems or damage to the high-temperature exhaust and emission control system on the vehicle. Have vehicles inspected and repaired as soon as possible if exhaust or emission control problems are suspected.
  • Drive according to posted speed limits and other traffic rules. Remain alert to changing road conditions at all times.

To further reduce the risks associated with vehicle fires, it's important for motorists to know what to do -- and not do -- should their vehicle catch on fire. AAA advises motorists to remember three steps: stop, get out and call for help.

STOP – If possible, pull to the side of the road and turn off the ignition. Pulling to the side makes it possible for everyone to get out of the vehicle safely. Turn off the ignition to shut off the electric current and stop the flow of gasoline. Put the vehicle in park or set the emergency brake; you don't want the vehicle to move after your leave it. Keep the hood closed because more oxygen can make the fire larger.

GET OUT– Make sure everyone gets out of the vehicle. Then move at least 100 feet away. Keep traffic in mind and keep everyone together. There is not only danger from the fire, but also from other vehicles moving in the area.

CALL FOR HELP– Call 911 or the emergency number for your local fire department. Firefighters are specially trained to combat vehicle fires. Never return to the vehicle to attempt to fight the fire yourself. Vehicle fires can be tricky, even for firefighters.

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