There are over 10 million reported motor vehicle accidents annually in the United States. Deaths from these accidents rank as the 11 th leading cause of death in America. Motor vehicle accidents are a serious issue which most people have experienced or will experience at some point.
While a car accident is traumatic by itself, when the element of fire is introduced the trauma and potential for injury increases exponentially. The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that car fires account for 13.3% of all fires in the United States (excluding controlled fires such as campfires), cause 1,250 injuries, and cost over $1.1 billion annually. Passenger vehicles make up 90% of vehicle traffic and account for 86% of all automobile fires.
Car Fire Causes
A car can catch fire for a single reason or a combination of reasons: an accident or collision, equipment failure, an act of nature, an intentional act, etc. Motor vehicle fires can also result from external sources near the road. Accidents that involve power lines are especially dangerous because of the potential for sparks from the power line to ignite fuel in a vehicle.
Three factors which contribute in approximately 80% of all car fires are mechanical failure, electrical failure, or misuse of materials or products. It is important to note that mechanical and electrical failures often occur during, or as a result of, an accident, making motor vehicle accidents the primary factor for most car fires.
Mechanical failures contribute to approximately 45% of car fires. Mechanical failures can include a leak or break in a vehicle component, the failure of automatic or manual controls, or the use of the incorrect type of fuel. Electrical failures, predominately short circuits in the car’s electrical system, contribute to approximately 20% of car fires. Finally, misuse of materials, primarily spilling gas or other flammable liquids too close to the car, contributes to approximately 15% of car fires.
When a primary or contributing factor to a car fire is the result of mechanical or electrical failures, it is possible that the car manufacture could be responsible for the damages incurred as a result of the fire. This is referred to as product liability and is discussed more fully in the Who Is Responsible section.
Car Fire Burn Types
Anytime a fire is involved, thermal burns are the most likely type of burn that someone might experience. The most readily apparent type of thermal burn would be flame burns from contact or proximity to the flames of the fire itself. Secondary effects of a car fire could also lead to flash, contact, scald and/or electrical burns.
Most cars are powered by internal combustion engines. This means that the power is derived from controlled, intermittent explosions caused by the combustion of fuel. A key ingredient for internal combustion engines to function is combustible fuel, usually gas or diesel. The very combustibility of gas that is essential for the car to function becomes a hazard if the car catches on fire. Too much heat near the fuel storage areas or fuel outside of the storage areas can cause the fuel to ignite, resulting in a large, uncontrolled explosion. This creates sufficient heat to cause flash burns to those nearby.
Contact & Scald Burns
Contact and scald burns are possibilities during car accidents regardless of if the car catches fire or not. Engines produce a substantial amount of heat that is distributed throughout the vehicle, including liquids stored near the engine under the hood. Hot metal, plastic, and/or liquids are often displaced when vehicles collide. If those hot objects or substances penetrate through the vehicles safety mechanisms during the accident, they can lead to contact or scald burns on anyone they touch.
The heat from accidents or car fires also has the potential to destroy the insulation around electrical wiring or other cables. Electrical wires are the source of ignition in car fires 28% of the time. When the insulation is destroyed, it can expose electrical wiring. If the wires are still connected to the car battery and come in contact with skin, they can cause electrical burns. Check vehicles involved in an accident to ensure that no electrical wiring is exposed.