I was heading over the Whitestone Bridge in New York recently and there in the EZPass lane was a fire squad putting out an engine fire in a Mercedes. We should be used to cars catching fire by now, because 17 of them do just that in the U.S. every hour. Every year, there are about 150,000 car fires, and more than 200 people die in them.
I was thinking about this when I read about Porsche recalling all 785 911 GTRs because of engine fires. Bloomberg said there were two Porsches en flambé in Europe, but there may have been more. According to AxisofOversteer.com, “Apparently five [emphasis added] cars have gone up in smoke under similar circumstances in recent weeks.”
Like the Tesla Model S, the GTR (below) is a very expensive ($190,930), fast and glamorous car. But there’s a critical difference, in that nobody’s saying this is the end of Porsche or speculating that internal-combustion engines are inherently unsafe. Tesla’s three fires — two after hitting objects in the road, one after a huge crash in Mexico — made big headlines around the world, but the Porsche recall is relatively low-key. (There have been two other garage fires involving the Model S, one in which the car was plugged in, and one in which it was not. Both are being investigated.)
Photo: Lee Bristol/Flickr
So the bottom line here is that we have five Tesla and five Porsche fires. Yes, some EVs have caught fire, but the rate doesn't stand out as hugely notable. Porsche told anyone with a GTR to stop driving the car because a fire could occur. Tesla offered to make whole any victims of burned Model S cars, and the federal safety agency is investigating. NHTSA has its hands full with the GM recall of more than 3 million cars (involving ignition flaws related to 12 deaths).
So this is it with recalls relating to car fires, right? Wrong! Honda is in the middle of recalling 900,000 Odyssey minivans because of leaking fuel pumps that could start fires. That’s it, then? No! Last year, GM recalled more than 480,000 SUVs (mostly U.S. models such as the Chevy Trailblazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL) because of a possible electric short in a driver’s door circuit board starting a fire.
OK, enough already. Surely, you’re done? Nope. How about Jeep recalling 2.7 million 1993 to 2004 Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs last year because of fire risk in rear-end collisions. NHTSA links that gas tank defect to fires that have killed at least 50 people. The 1993 Grand Cherokee below was rear-ended and burned in 2006, in Texas, killing 4-year-old Cassidy Jarmon.
Photo: Cleburne (Texas) Police Department
The point is that, horrendous as it might be, car fires happen. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is still saying that we’re talking about isolated incidents, and that Teslas catch fire less than the auto population as a whole. But Tesla hasn’t been exonerated, and has already made some adjustments (including higher ride height and upgraded garage chargers) to reduce fire risk. But if you think the Model S is the only car to catch fire (or at least threaten to), think again.
What to do
Some 75 percent of car fires are caused by poor maintenance, reports the National Fire Protection Association. Electric problems are a big reason — don't keep replacing the same fuse. Improper stereo installations sometimes cause shorts (especially those huge rear-mounted bass-pumper speakers), as do abraded wire harnesses. Don't park a hot car over dry grass, because high-temp catalytic converters can spark a blaze.
If your car does catch fire, pull over to the side of the road and turn the engine off, then get out as quickly as possible. If it's an interior fire, you can try to put it out with an extinguisher, but if it's an engine fire, be careful. Don't open the hood, because the rush of oxygen can fan the flames. Instead, release the hood catch and shoot the extinguisher through the small opening.
Here's a car fire in real-time video, illustrating in some ways what not to do (throw a small bottle of water at the blaze), but also showing good Samaritans with extinguishers and firemen to the rescue:
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