Written By : Terry Turner
This page features 31 Cited Research Articles
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There are more than 19 vehicle fires every hour in the United States. They account for 1 in every 8 calls that fire departments respond to.

Vehicle fires kill nearly seven people every week. They cause another 1,300 injuries and $1.1 billion in property damage every year. Passenger cars and trucks are responsible for 83 percent of all highway vehicle fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

What Are the Main Causes of Vehicle Fires?

More than a third are the result of some unintentional action, either careless behavior or accidents. And nearly a quarter are caused by equipment failure or a heat source in the car or truck.

Heat from powered equipment, the engine or drivetrain, and sparks from friction or electrical arcs account for 2 in 3 vehicle fires. Smoking or some other type of open flame accounts for 7 percent of fires.

62% of car fires are started in engine, drivetrain, or wheel areas.
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Source: U.S. Fire Administration, July 2018

Only about 5 percent of car fires result from a collision. But those account for 6 in 10 of all fatal vehicle fires. Less than 2 percent start in the fuel tank or lines.

Keeping your car in good working order and avoiding open flames or flammable items in the passenger compartment are among the best ways to prevent a car fire.

Defective parts are responsible for only a fraction of vehicle fires, but they have resulted in hundreds of deaths and put millions of consumers at risk. Since 2012, automakers have recalled more than 9.5 million cars due to faulty parts or other design issues that could cause a fire.

Kia & Hyundai Recalls for Engine Fires

Kia and Hyundai have recalled 2.3 million vehicles since 2015 due to engine fire risks. Nearly 3 million of the companies’ vehicles face a federal investigation over potential fire dangers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating engine fire risks in 10 different Kia and Hyundai models built between the 2010 and 2016 model years.

Kia and Hyundai Models Recalled Due to Fire Risks
MAKEMODELMODEL YEARS
KIASoul2010-2016
Optima
Optima Hybrid
Sorento
2011-2014
Sportage2011-2012
HYUNDAISonata
Sonata Hybrid
Santa Fe
2011-2014
Sante Fe Sport2013-2014
Tucson2011-2013

The agency has documented 3,125 fires resulting in 103 injuries and at least one death as of April 2019, according to Car and Driver. Kia and Hyundai fires are blamed on two problems. Some vehicles have defective parts that leave metal shavings in oil passages inside the engines. The engines can seize and start a fire.

Other recalled vehicles have an oil pan leak that may cause fires.

Ford Plagued with Millions of Recalled Vehicles over Fire Risks

Ford has issued a long series of vehicle fire risk-related recalls since the 1990s that have affected millions of cars and light trucks. In 2018, Ford issued two recalls for two completely different fire risks.

In September 2018, the company recalled 2 million F-150s in North America because of a fire risk with the trucks’ seatbelts. The belt’s pretensioner sets off an explosive charge to lock the belt in place during a crash. Ford received 23 reports of smoke or fire from the devices. There were no reports of injuries before the recall.

Fact
In the early 2000s, Ford recalled 9 million vehicles dating back to the 1990s for defective ignition switches and another 16 million for faulty cruise control switches that could spark fires even if the vehicle was parked.

In December 2018, Ford recalled 874,000 full-sized pickup trucks because corroded engine block heaters caused at least three fires. No injuries were reported ahead of the recall. The company had to recall 327,000 of those trucks a second time in April 2019 — the fix the company had used for the heater block problem caused damage to other wiring.

Recalled Ford Triggered $100 Million Fire Aboard a Ship

A recalled Ford SUV was responsible for a $100 million fire aboard a transport ship in 2015, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The Vehicle Carrier Courage was transporting vehicles including those belonging to U.S. military families returning from Europe, when a fire broke out below decks, destroying $90 million in cargo and causing $10 million damage to the ship.

The NTSB traced the source of the fire to a 2002 Ford Escape. The truck was part of a recall of 2001 through 2004 Escapes and Mazda Tributes which shared many of the same components. Brake fluid leaking from the master cylinder cap could flow onto a wiring harness and cause a fire.

Ford Escape braking system caused fire on cargo ship
Ford Escape automatic braking system module blamed for fire aboard Vehicle Carrier Courage.
Source: National Transportation Safety Board, July 17, 2017

The SUV’s owner had been stationed overseas for several years and had never been notified of the recall.

Fires from Jeep’s Plastic Gas Tanks Killed 75 People

Jeep spent years fighting consumer advocate and government calls to recall SUVs linked to fiery deaths and injuries. The company relented in 2013, recalling 1.56 million 2002 to 2007 Liberty SUVs and 1993 to 2004 Grand Cherokees. But problems continued for years after.

Fact
Fiat-Chrysler paid a then-record $105 million penalty to the federal government for failure to swiftly recall defective vehicles including millions of its older Jeeps with vehicle fire risks.
Source: Reuters, Mar. 15, 2018

The SUVs had plastic gas tanks installed behind the rear bumper. They could rupture and explode in rear-end collisions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 75 deaths and 58 injuries in 90 crashes.

The agency recommended that Jeep bolt a metal plate under the tanks for added protection. Jeep instead opted to install a company-made trailer hitch, claiming it would protect vehicle occupants. NHTSA accepted the modification but vehicle safety advocates continued to question whether it protected the gas tanks.

Are Electric Cars More Likely to Catch Fire than Gas-Powered Cars?

Electric cars are still too new and make up too small a percentage of all vehicles for safety experts to accurately how they compare to gasoline-powered cars when it comes to fire risks.

Tesla, the most high-profile electric car maker, claims gas-powered cars are 11 times more likely to catch fire than its vehicles. The company bases this measure on miles traveled.

Tesla says there have been five Tesla vehicle fires for every billion miles driven, while records show 55 gasoline-powered car fires in that same distance.

But Teslas make up just one-tenth of 1 percent of the 247 million vehicles on the road in the United States, so it is hard to get an accurate measure of fire risks. This will likely change as electric vehicles make up a larger percentage of traffic.

Water Damage May Trigger Electric Vehicle Fires

Flooding during Hurricane Sandy started an electrical fire that destroyed 16 Fisker Karma luxury electric cars awaiting delivery to dealers from a port in New Jersey.

The company said the vehicles were submerged under 5 to 8 feet of sea water for several hours. The saltwater caused corrosion leading to a fire in an electrical component in one of the cars. Hurricane winds spread it to surrounding vehicles.

Hurricane Sandy also caused similar fires in at least three Toyota Prius hybrids on the Newark, New Jersey docks.

Electric Vehicles May Catch Fire Hours After a Crash

Electric vehicles use lithium ion batteries, the same technology that powers laptop computers, smartphones and hundreds of other devices. Because of the way they are designed, they can catch fire or explode if they are damaged. This means they may not catch fire until hours after a collision.

In electric vehicle fires, the batteries can burn at 5,000 degrees and still deliver electric shocks of up to 400 volts, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

The federal agency advises that electric vehicle fires may reignite as long as 24 hours after the first blaze is put out. It also recommends that once the electric vehicle is towed, it should be stored at least 50 feet from other cars, buildings or combustible items.

What to Do If Your Car Catches Fire

Crashes can lead to car fires, but most fires are due to fuel or electrical systems in the car. Routine maintenance and your own personal inspection around your car can prevent your car from catching fire.

Warning Signs of Vehicle Fire Hazards
  • Broken or loose hoses
  • Cracked or loose wiring
  • Fuses that keep blowing
  • Loose or missing oil cap
  • Loud sounds from the exhaust
  • Rapid changes in fuel levels or engine temperature
  • Spilled or leaking oil under your car
  • Wiring with exposed metal

Because vehicles are loaded with flammable or explosive fluids and fuel, vehicle fires can spread quickly. It is important to remain calm but react quickly. Fires are likely to start while you are driving, so it’s important to remain aware of traffic around you as you pull to safety and get out of the car.

What to Do in Case of a Vehicle Fire
  • Turn off the ignition
  • Get yourself and your passengers at least 100 feet away from the car
  • If in a garage, exit immediately
  • Be aware of traffic around you as you escape
  • Be aware that an explosion can send metal and other debris flying over a great distance
  • Call 911 only after you reach a safe distance
  • Tell the 911 operator the exact location of the fire including whether it’s on the roadside or in a parking garage
  • Do not attempt to return to the vehicle
  • If you choose to use a fire extinguisher, remain at a safe distance and use only extinguishers for Class B and Class C fires
Source: FEMA

Fire safety experts recommend that you should not attempt to fight the fire yourself. They also recommend that professional firefighters use extreme caution in fighting vehicle fires.

You should never open the hood, trunk or doors after a car is burning. Doing so can flood the compartment with fresh air, causing the fire to get worse. It could also expose you to serious injuries.

After the fire is put out, you’ll need to talk to your insurance agent. Ask firefighters if it’s safe to approach the vehicle to take pictures of the damage and retrieve any personal items.

Gather names and phone numbers from witnesses and contact numbers for police officers who respond. You’ll need these for your insurance claim.

Even if it was only a minor fire, you should not attempt to drive the vehicle. Have it towed and inspected before restarting the engine. An inspection may be able to determine the exact cause of the fire. If it is a manufacturing defect, that may be important if you decide to file a vehicle fire lawsuit.

Last Modified: June 12, 2020

31 Cited Research Articles

  1. Atiyeh, C. (2019, April 5). NHTSA Investigating Three Million Hyundai and Kia Vehicles for Fires. Car and Driver. Retrieved from https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a27053460/nhtsa-investigation-hyundai-kia-fires/
  2. Bartlett, J.S. (2018, December 21). Ford Recalls Full-Sized Pickup Trucks Due to Engine Fire Risk. Consumer Reports. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/car-recalls-defects/ford-recalls-full-sized-pickup-trucks-due-to-engine-fire-risk/
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