A few months ago, when my friend’s precious Mustang had burnt to a crisp, I was ignorant about car fires. For me, the best that I knew about them was what I had seen on TV.

But after the fire, when I was neck deep in fire extinguisher research, I was privy to some very startling statistics.

These statistics are not very recent considering that they were compiled almost 6 years ago by the National Fire Prevention Association. But if anything, these numbers will only have increased in the past few years given the dramatic rise in the number of cars on the road.

  • In 2003-2007, there were a reported 287,000 vehicle fires each year.
  • It resulted in direct property damages worth $1.3 billion
  • There were 1525 civilian injuries in these incidents and almost 480 deaths.

Source: http://www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/vehicle-fires/vehicle-fire-trends-and-patterns

Apart from the need for having a car fire extinguisher installed, it also got me thinking about the possible causes of vehicle fires.

The same statistic also reveals that 49% of these fires were caused due to mechanical failure or some part of the car malfunctioning.

23% was caused due to electrical failure where as collisions accounted for almost 58% of the fires.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to possible causes of vehicle fires. After speaking to auto mechanics, insurance adjusters and people who have lived to tell the tale, here are some of the top reasons of car fires.


#1 – Design Flaws

Believe it or not, an inherent flaw in the design of your car can amplify the risk of fires. If you have not noticed, then there car recalls every now and then due to a possible fire hazard. The most recent one that I can think of now is Maserati recalling 50000 luxury vehicles after discovering that merely adjusting the front seat posed a serious risk of developing electrical shorts. How about that? In another recall, Polaris recalled Sportsman 570 ATVs due to the risk of a fire hazard. GM recently recalled 50000 Chevrolet Tahoes for the same reason. The point here is that you may encounter a fire before the company discovers the flaw which makes design flaws one of the possible reasons that can trigger a fire.


#2 – Lack of Maintenance

Merely glancing under the hood of your car doesn’t amount to maintenance. You need to be diligent about spotting any broken parts, frayed wires or any seals that may be leaking. A frayed wire coming into contact with any flammable liquid can trigger a fire. So where does the flammable liquid come from in the first place? How about a leaking gasket? It’s completely possible.


#3 – Collisions

As mentioned in the statistic above, collisions are one of the leading causes of a car fire. Despite the crumple zone absorbing most of the impact and protecting the fuel tank, it is very likely that a leak may have sprung and it can cause a fire because of the heat. Most of the time, after a collision, the conditions are just perfect for a fire to start. So, even if the car has not caught fire, you should immediately get out of the car and go to a safe distance.


#4 – Battery Packs

Batteries, especially the ones used in hybrid cars have always been prone to fire hazards and despite assurances from manufacturers that the most recent model has ironed out the crevices, the problems continue to occur. A recent example would be the one for Tesla S which was cited and even awarded to be the safest electrical car ever and three days later, one of the cars burst into flames.


#5 – Overheating

The very design of a car engine prevents it from exploding into flames no matter how much the temperature rises. But the engine contains other fluids too, like coolants and oil which can be a recipe for disaster when it comes into contact with the extremely hot parts of a car. Think about oil coming into contact with the exhaust system.


#6 – Electrical Faults

Boy, do I hate electrical wires. And they are ubiquitous in your car. Be it the door, the dashboard, the carpet, the channels, the seats, name it and they are there. And even one frayed wire can start to cook your car without you even knowing about it. In my car, it started from right under the dashboard. But a frayed wire is not the only way in which an electrical fire can start in your car. When your battery constantly recharges, the hydrogen which starts to accumulate in the engine bay will spark occasionally due to the current in the battery. If you have any leaking flammable fluids, that’s all that is needed to start a fire.


#7 – Fuel Leaks

Last but not the least; the most common cause of car fires is a leaking fuel system. Leaking fuel and the constantly high temperatures under the hood are not a great combination to begin with. But if your car uses gasoline, then it can get sparked even at seemingly low temperatures. What makes this such a difficult problem to detect is that fuel leaks can be caused by a combination of several factors. And at times, the system can spring a leak by itself for no reason. The only way to ensure that you do not have a leak in your fuel system is to be diligent and constantly check. One of the main indicators of a fuel leak is the smell of gasoline around your car.

A car fire can happen all of a sudden and the best you can do is be prepared to mitigate some of the damage by keeping a fire extinguisher in the car. Ideally, you should keep an extinguisher that can deal with class A, B & C type of fires.