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How Real is the Risk of a Car Going Up in Flames?

Safety - 27 March 2019

In August 2017, Ford recalled its Kuga a third time in eight months after another threat that the luxury SUV could burst into flames. On this occasion, fear of insulation material close to the front seatbelts catching alight on impact during accidents, surfaced.

This followed the two previous recalls since the 2015 death of a driver after his car went up in flames and the subsequent combustion of 64 Kugas, all as a result of a faulty coolant system which caused the car’s cylinder head to crack and oil to leak out onto the hot engine where it ignited a fire, according to Times Live.

The fire that started in a parked Land Rover in Kings Dock parking garage in the UK during the Liverpool International Horse Show on New Year’s Eve 2017 resulted in 1,200 cars, trucks and SUVs incinerated within hours.

In a recent article, the NFPA Journal questions whether current fire protection guidance for parking garages is still adequate, given the massive changes in the material used in car design, including more electronics and plastic wiring, that adds additional potential ignition sources.

Do Modern Cars Present a Greater Fire Hazard?

Experts agree that with regular maintenance, the risk of combustion in modern cars is very low. A design flaw may create conducive conditions but will not start a fire on its own. The huge danger of reputational risk ensures that carmakers take swift action at the first sign of such a problem arising.

In the UK, there is a 1% chance of a vehicle catching fire. Locally the risk is slightly higher, purely because of the greater number of cars that are not being serviced properly, says motoring journalist and engineer, Jake Venter.

What Are the Possible Causes of a Car Setting on Fire?

A car fire rarely has a single cause. It is typically a combination of human, mechanical and chemical causes – but the three critical components required – fuel, oxygen and a source of ignition, remain constant.

Knowing where and how such a “perfect storm” is most likely to occur can help car owners avoid dangerous situations.

Fuel System Leaks

Fuel leaks are the most common cause of car fires and can happen with little warning.

  • Petrol at a temperature of 7.2 degrees Celsius or above can quickly catch fire from a simple spark.
  • Deteriorated gaskets or O-rings can cause a fuel leak that is set alight in turn by a spark that is the result of poor insulation on a spark plug to instantly become a blazing fire.

Car maintenance is crucial to prevent this type of scenario.

Electric System Failure

Electrical system failures are the second most common cause of car fires.

  • A typical car battery's charging cycles can cause explosive hydrogen gas to build up in the engine bay.
  • The electrical current the battery provides (along with faulty or loose wiring) can produce sparks that can quickly ignite a fluid drip or leaked fumes.

Spilled Fluids

Petrol and diesel, engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid and engine coolant are all highly flammable liquids.

  • These liquids circulating when a car is running pose a fire risk should their lines, hoses or reservoirs be compromised.
  • Whilst each would require activation through a secondary agent such as a failed part or the impact of an accident to cause a blaze, the mere fact that they are flammable is reason for caution.

Overheating Engine

Leaky seals, gaskets, or damaged radiators.

  • Damaged components cause an engine to overheat, excessively heating up internal fluids like oil and coolant.
  • This in turn allows these fluids to spill out of their circuits and drizzle out the engine bay.
  • The oil or coolant lands onto hot parts of the exhaust system where they can ignite and spread.

Overheating Catalytic Converters

A catalytic converter becomes overworked.

  • This occurs when it tries to burn off more exhaust pollutants that it was designed for because of an inefficient engine.
  • This can be caused by, for example, worn spark plugs, which can easily increase from its normal operating temperature range of between 648.9 to 871.1 to 1,093.3 degrees Celsius.
  • A car is not designed to withstand those high temperatures and can potentially ignite the cabin insulation and carpeting right through the heat shields and metal floor pan.

Car Accidents

Fire ignition caused by high impact blows.

  • Most cars have well designed crumple zones that allow the sheet metal to absorb the impact force to protect the danger spots like the engine, battery, and petrol tank. However, a very high impact blow can still cause leakage and spillage as well as heat and smoke to cause optimum fire hazard conditions.

Always get a safe distance away from a damaged car as soon as possible.

Fire fatalities by sector caused by fire in South Africa: Cars & motorcycles 18,1%
FIRE FATALITIES BY SECTOR

Avoid a Car Fire with Good Car Maintenance

  • Broken parts, leaky seals, or faulty wiring all contribute to the perfect conditions that can cause a fire.
  • An engine with a bad gasket is more likely to drip hazardous (and flammable) fluids.
  • Frayed wiring is more likely to spark and contact with flammable materials.

“Make it a daily habit of giving your car and its parking bay a once-over for strange smells or oil deposits. And absolutely never skimp on having your car tested and checked regularly for leaks, bad connections, or deteriorated wiring, especially when it starts to get older,” says Ary Coetzee, Technical & Product Specialist with top tyre manufacturer, Bridgestone South Africa.

Supa Quick has over 250 tyre fitment centres in Southern Africa and a national team of more than 4,000 auto fitment experts trained to assist you. Find a store close to you and get your car checked today.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational, educational, and entertainment purposes only.

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