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Getting your vehicle stopped and the engine shut off is... Getting your vehicle stopped and the engine shut off is a key step in preventing engine fires from becoming uncontrollable (AMagill, Flickr).
Vehicle fires are one of the scariest things that can happen on the road – and they happen more often than you think. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says 33 car fires are reported every hour in the U.S., and 18 percent of all reported fires occur on a road or highway and involve a motor vehicle. One person per day died in a car fire incident between 2003 and 2005, and in 2007 there were 258,000 vehicle fires causing 385 deaths, 1,675 injuries and 1.41 billion dollars' worth of damages. Teens and young adults with driver's licenses are most likely to be involved in car fire accidents, according to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, and young males are victims more often than females.

These statistics, while sobering, don't mean you should worry that your vehicle is going to spontaneously combust on your drive home from work. But safe driving and regular maintenance are important to reducing your chances of being involved in one of these incidents.

The Fireball Van

My own experience with car fires happened in high school, when a friend bought a used van. He gassed it up weekly but otherwise didn't open the hood. Even when the vehicle started having problems starting, he ignored any maintenance. At least until other passengers and I noticed a burning smell.

My buddy attributed it to the odometer: The van had over 100,000 miles on it and a bit of foul odor here and there was natural, he reassured us. But when the engine began belching dense smoke, he finally pulled over. We disembarked as the cockpit filled with smoke and in about 15 minutes, the entire van was a fireball. To make matters worse, the fire wasn't covered by insurance.

That's because standard auto insurance usually doesn't cover vehicle fires, says AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair. "The only way a vehicle will be covered if it catches fire is if you have comprehensive coverage," Sinclair told AOL Autos. "If you've got an older vehicle, we tell people that after probably eight or nine years, it makes sense to drop comprehensive coverage because you'll probably be paying out more than what the vehicle is worth."

Insured or not, watching your vehicle burn by the side of the road is an experience you don't want to go through. Here are a few common-sense tips that can help prevent vehicle fires, provided by the National Safety Council:

1. If you smell burning plastic or rubber, pull over safely and investigate. Don't try to make it home before you determine what the trouble is.

2. Get in the habit of having your car tuned up and checked out at least once a year. An inspection should include examining the vehicle for gas or oil leaks. If you suspect a leak, park a newspaper under your vehicle at night and weigh it down with a heavy object; in the morning, check the paper for stains.

3. If a fuse keeps blowing, that's a sign of electrical trouble, the same as in your house. Don't let it keep happening without investigating, as an overloaded wire can be the source of a fire.

Dousing The Flames

Racecar driver Tommy Kendall told AOL Autos that the best defense against a car fire is to be prepared. "If you never thought about your car catching fire, now is a good time," he said.

Most fires, Kendall said, are a result of a malfunctioning fuel line or a fuel pipe splitting. "If you smell something burning, shutting off the engine will stop the flow of fuel and may prevent a full-blown fire. It's natural to panic in an emergency, but make sure you get off the road first so you're not a hazard to other drivers, or yourself."

"In a race car, there's an onboard fire suppression unit, little pipes that run around the cockpit filled with Halon (a liquefied, compressed non-toxic gas that stops the spread of fire by chemically disrupting combustion). The rules require it. It sprays this foam -- some of it's a fire extinguisher, some of it sucks the oxygen -- mostly to keep the driver safe first, the car second," Kendall said. "But in my own passenger car, I keep a fire extinguisher in the trunk, and you should, too."

Experts counsel not to attempt to extinguish a raging car fire yourself, but there are circumstances when you can try if you have a fire extinguisher. If there is smoke coming from under your hood but no flames, you can crack the hood slightly and spray at the gap from a few feet away. Do not open the hood all the way as the increased oxygen could quickly turn a tiny fire into a big blaze.

However, if the fire is in the rear of the vehicle near the gas tank, you should get away quickly. Only a professional should attempt to douse fires of this sort.

What To Do

If your car catches fire while you are driving, the most important thing to do is to remain calm. Then follow these steps, which also apply if your car ignites in a parking lot.

1. Signal and move immediately to the right shoulder, or right lane.

2. Get the vehicles stopped and shut off the engine while getting yourself and all passengers out of the vehicle.

3. Get as far away from the vehicle as you can, at least 150 feet, but make sure the area you move to is safe and secure.

4. Dial 911, so the dispatcher can notify the fire department.

5. Warn onlookers and others to keep away, as well. If you have some signaling device, you can also attempt to warn oncoming traffic.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Months Ago
      Once I saw a car on fire so I pulled over, got my fire extinguisher out of my SUV and put this guy's car fire out. He saw me intermittently use the extinguisher and asked, " can I have the fire extinguisher?". I said, "no". I felt he would have emptied it out or aimed at the wrong place and he would have been SOL. When all was done and the FDNY showed up, he didn't say thanks or offer to pay for the extinguisher. Must not have been his car...
      • 6 Months Ago
      Another thing to look for, since there is not always a bunch of smoke, is if your paint job on the hood starts to get dark and begins to bubble or peel.
      • 6 Months Ago
      some good advise, just don't have a car fire along the roads here in ohio and have a state trooper stop to help, they will write you a ticket. malfuntion vehicle, not jokeing, a friend of mine had a car fire and was in shook when the trooper wrote him up for it. when he went to court the judge told him that he should have inspected his car prior to takeing it on the road, and it dosen't matter why it caught fire . Only in Ohio
      • 6 Months Ago
      33 car fires a hour and how many of them are arson to get the insurance money. Think about it and many people accidentally burn to death in these insurance claims scams. Money "You Can Take It With You When You Die". The Dahn of a New Area
      • 6 Months Ago
      CAR FIRES CAN BE VERY DANGEROUS...........................CHECK YOUR CAR OFTEN......
      • 6 Months Ago
      I had my car catch on fire about four months ago. I did regular maintenance on the car, but I was exiting the interstate, and the road was stripped where they were putting in a new layer of asphalt. It was in the evening, and the construction crew wasn't there, they also didn't have their "dip" sign visible until you were on the spot where the asphalt dropped. I didn't slow down enough and when I hit the dip, it scraped the bottom of my car. I didn't hear anything after so I assumed everything was OK. I drove a few miles down the road, and then I started seeing smoke, but I thought it was from the exhaust system, since I was having a part on the system replaced in a couple of days. I just thought the part went bad. I drove a little farther, but the smoke was really bad so I pulled over. Right when I did a woman pulled up next to me and frantically told me my car was on fire. My passenger and I got out, and we even tried to put it out with some soil we had in the back, but it was too big. We did everything else this article said too. We called 911, and we got away from the car and warned others coming down the road until the fire department got there. Luckily the tank didn't explode, but the car was totaled. It really wasn't something I could afford, but I was thankful that we weren't hurt and no one else was.
        • 6 Months Ago
        Most of the time vehicles are a lost cause once they catch on fire.I've heard of vehicles catching on fire right in front of fire depts and they still became fully engulfed by the time they got the hose to it.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Halon is not always a non-toxic gas. Ther are forms of Halon that remain toxic. In any case if it is used it reacts with heat to produce toxic gases.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Cars fires are very RARE for me. But I do know one thing. When a fire starts, they can spread SO QUICKY! Its VERY quick to get big! One time I seen a car catching fire. I saw it as small at first. Then within LESS THEN A MINUTE, the entire engine was enguled, then now INSIDE the car. SPONTANESY! If you call 911 to hope to save your car. It probably will NOT happen. Its takes only SECONDS to destroy the car. And even if car was able to saved. It is VERY likely it will NOT be repairable. cause theres tons of electical wires. An MANNN those electrical stuff is NIGHTMARE to fix
        • 6 Months Ago
        I've repaired a couple of vehicles that caught fire and each time I had to replace the entire wiring harness ,it is a pita to do.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Don't drink and drive, some alcohols are flammable.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Yes, get out and stay far away from the burning vehicle. 150 foot or more. Never try to put out the fire, or let anyone else try to put out the fire. A burned vehicle that is repairable will always smell! Let it burn to the ground, and your insurance company (you should have collision and comp) will pay you the current retail value of the vehicle, less your deductable. Also, do not be afraid to haggle with the insurance adjuster about the value. Get recent dealership and private party for-sale ads and equate condition of your vehicle proior to the fire. No, they can not deduct for a ratty interior, as there will be nothing left of the interior except burnt metal and some melted parts. Fred Gramcko
      • 6 Months Ago
      Methanol cannot be used in street cars because it is VERY caustic to the fuel system. Worse than gasoline. A methanol fire is clear. It can't be seen. No orange flames or black smoke. The CART or Indy Car fuel lines were flushed withed gasoline before transport or storage.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Get the 'Flock' out of it!! Bet it will be a Toyota!!
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