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Burns Sustained In Vehicular Accidents

Motor Vehicle Accident Burns

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.

Car Fires

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), causing 1,250 injuries, and costing 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.

Product Liability

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.

Flash 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.

Electrical Burns

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.


Recreational Vehicles

Car accidents make up a majority of vehicle accidents primarily because they are used frequently in close proximity with other users. Recreational vehicles pose a risk for other reasons, mainly less educated users and less stringent safety requirements. Recreational vehicle accidents—such as boating or motorcycle accidents—occur with less frequency, but they can be just as damaging as car accidents. A collision or explosion can result in a fire that may severely injure people who are in or around the vehicle.

Motorcycle Accidents

Motorcycles pose a significant risk for contact burns. A 2005 study using data from a 5 year period found that motorcycle exhaust pipes pose a significant risk of serious burns, especially for passengers. Over 65 percent of exhaust pipe burns were second degree burns, and passengers accounted for over 70 percent of these burns. Motorcycle contact burns are most common in new riders as experienced motorcyclists develop strategies, such as wearing pants instead of shorts, to avoid being burned.

Motorcyclists are also at an increased risk of being burned during an accident. The design of motorcycles makes it more likely that gas will escape the gas tank during an accident, and it has the potential to spill on the motorcyclist in the process. This can lead to severe flame burns as the gas works as an ignition source to ignite the motorcyclist’s clothing.

Boating Accidents

Using data compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard on reported recreational boating accidents, boating accidents cost over $39 million in damages in 2013. Out of the 4,062 accidents reported, fires were the primary cause only 5.4 percent of the time but accounted for 30 percent of the damages. Collisions (which increase the chance of a fire or explosion) were the primary cause 39 percent of the time and accounted for 36 percent of damages.

Legal Distinctions

A major distinction between car accidents and recreational vehicle accidents is the governing law. Usage of cars is highly regulated, and the regulations are widely known. For example, one must pass a state licensing test or be enrolled in a driving education course before receiving a Driver’s License permitting them to drive on public roads. This is not always true with recreational vehicles. For example, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Maine, South Dakota, and Wyoming have no mandatory education or licensing for boat operators. Not only does this put potentially less prepared or experienced individuals behind the wheel of a vehicle, it also can have interesting effects on legal consequences of accidents. Each recreational activity is different and requires evaluation on a case by case basis.


America’s Boating Course

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

U.S. Department of Transportation

U.S. Fire Administration Fire Statistics

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Kirk Morgan


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Chuck Slaughter


Types of Burns

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Degrees of Burns

First , second , and third degree burns

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Burn Injuries

There are many types of burn injuries

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Scald Burn Injury

Caused when very hot liquids come into contact with skin

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Electrical Burns

Electricity can burn the skin and is capable of causing internal damage

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Chemical Burn Injury Icon

Chemical Burns

Caused when a strong acid or base comes into direct contact with skin

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Car/Boating Accidents

Thermal burns can occur if the car catches fire or explodes

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Gas Explosions

Caused when a gas leak combines with an ignition source

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Worker’s Compensation

If you've been burned on the job, you may need legal guidance

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E-Cigarette Burns

Can be caused by defective batteries or overheated vapor

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