Some Perspective on Car Fires

Obviously, a very high profile vehicle like the Chevy Volt is going to be under the microscope. So it’s understandable that people would be interested in the recent fires that involve the new extended range electric vehicle. A handful of fires in early production Tata Nanos in India were publicized around the world, because of interest in the cheapest car in the world. However, that attention doesn’t mean that the Nano or Volt are necessarily fire hazards. A number of people have reacted to the news of the Volt related fires by saying that the Volt is dangerous or that EVs in general are not safe. Some sites that have linked to Cars In Depth posts about those fires have grossly misrepresented the situation, blaming the Volt when investigations have barely been started. Before you say that the Chevy Volt is a fire hazard, let’s look at how hazardous conventional internal combustion powered automobiles actually are.

Here’s the reality. There have been 3 fires that have involved Chevy Volts since April 2011. One fire was traced to another ignition source, a second fire may have involved a Siemens charger – the investigation is proceeding, and the third fire occurred in a NHTSA storage lot after a Volt was crash tested at 40mph. Three fires in 8 months, none of them while the car was being driven. Compare those three fires in eight months to the 31 highway vehicle fires per hour that the National Fire Protection Association says is normal for gasoline and diesel powered vehicles. Fires in gasoline and diesel powered cars and trucks kill about one person per day in America. Almost a fifth, 17%, of all reported fires in the US involve highway vehicles and those fires are responsible for 12% of fire fatalities. Nearly 75% of the fires were caused by mechanical or electrical malfunctions.

To give you some perspective on vehicle fires, here are the hard facts on car fires from the National Fire Protection Association:

Vehicle Fires in the U.S. in 2003-2007
U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 287,000 vehicle fires per year in 2003-2007. These fires caused an average of 480 civilian deaths, 1,525 civilian injuries, and
$1.3 billion in direct property damage.

• Highway vehicles1 accounted for 267,600 (93%) of the reported vehicle fires and 441 (92%) of the associated deaths.
• Aircraft fires accounted for less than 1% of the vehicle fires, but 6% of the associated deaths.
• The majority of aircraft fire deaths (4% of all vehicle fire deaths) resulted from fires in personal, business, or utility aircraft.
• Aircraft fires were the only type of vehicle fires with more civilian deaths than civilian injuries.
Highway Vehicle Fires
Overall, highway vehicle fires were involved in 17% of reported U.S. fires, 12% of U.S. fire deaths, 8% of U.S. civilian fire injuries, and 9% of the direct property damage from reported fires.
• On average, 31 highway vehicle fires were reported per hour. These fires killed one person a day.
2003-2007 Highway Vehicle Fires and Deaths by Fire Causal Factors

• Mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions were factors in roughly three quarters of the highway vehicle fires.
• Collisions and overturns were factors in only 3% of highway vehicle fires, but these incidents accounted for 58% of the associated deaths.

Notes: 1. Highway vehicles include cars, trucks, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, and other vehicles intended for road
use. “Highway vehicle fire” describes the type of vehicle. It does not mean the fire occurred on a highway.

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