Car on Fire? Here's what you do

Cars are highly flammable - as modern car makers are well aware even today. What do you do if your car catches fire?

See this Cruze (one of the most fire defect-laden vehicles of the 21st Century) spontaneously burn to the ground in the vide below, and put yourself in the driver's shoes - especially with a couple of young kids in the back for added adrenaline overdrive...

Car makers at both ends of the price spectrum are currently failing to prevent their cars from catching fire - or so it would seem. Tata, the Indian manufacturer of the world's cheapest car, the Tata Nano, has just increased the fireproofing provisions on that car following a spate of fires. (Tata also owns Jaguar and Land Rover.) Ferrari has experienced a number of conflagrations recently in which the high-priced 458 Italia supercar has burned to the ground as a result of a defect allowing flammable body parts to contact the hot exhaust.

The fact is that cars are jam-packed with flammable liquids and parts. Petrol and oil, for example, burn fiercely. Upholstery and most plastics burn readily, too. In addition, car batteries manufacture hydrogen gas (flammable) and also spray sulphuric acid all over the place should they explode. The vehicle's electrical system is a godd (or is that bad?) source of ignition. In any case it is a powerful one.

In many countries the most common cause of vehicle fires is arson (ie they are intentional). Another common cause is unwittingly introducing static electricity into the refuelling process. Crashing and mechanical malfunction are also common causes of car fires.

Let's assume, however, you don't intentionally burn your car down. Let's assume you're not refuelling. Let's assume you're driving along and your car catches fire. (Often this is only visible in the rear-view mirrors because you're leaving the smoke behind you as the car cuts into the air in front.) What do you do?

  1. If you see smoke behind you, indicate and pull over somewhere safe as quickly as possible - without getting involved in a crash doing so. Stopping the car reduces the airflow, which will slow the fire down. 
  2. Try not to stop on top of dry grass or near any other source of fuel, to prevent the fire from spreading.
  3. Activate the hazard lights. Switch off the ignition and remove the keys.
  4. Get yourself out of the vehicle, together with all other occupants, as quickly as possible. Car fires can take hold very quickly. If possible, take a mobile telephone with you.
  5. Move to a safe location, preferably more than 50 metres from the car. Keep onlookers away.
  6. Call emergency services.
  7. Do not try to fight the fire yourself - even if you have a fire extinguisher in the car. Prioritise safety over preserving your property.
  8. Never - never - open the bonnet. The sudden access to air, if a smouldering fire is occurring under the bonnet, can cause an explosive transition to flame, which could engulf you. Remember that, in addition, the battery could explode, spraying highly corrosive concentrated sulphuric acid all over you.
  9. Do not approach the car even if the fire appears to have gone out. Wait for the fire department to give it the all-clear, as residual hotspots can flare up without warning.

If you are at a petrol station and there is a fire, look for the emergency fuel shutoff buttons - these are easy to spot and located for convenient access ... but for most people they've been hiding in plain sight all their lives. Large fire extinguishers are at many locations on the refuelling apron. If nobody is in danger, however, it is probably a better idea to hit the shutoff button, remove everyone to a safe location and call emergency services, rather than attempt to fight the fire.