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Automotive fire safety - part 2 - causes of car fires

In memory of the fifth anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick, RI that claimed 100 lives and injured more than 270 others, John Brennan is writing a series of articles designed to increase car fire safety awareness. Today, he explores the causes of car fires. Preventing fire may is the most important step in protecting property- and more importantly, life.

What causes car fires?

In most accidental fires, the fire begins in the engine compartment. A firewall is designed to offer some protection to the passenger compartment; it is intended only to give passengers a chance to escape. It does not protect them against noxious fumes or the explosions and the resulting shrapnel. Ultimately, the intense heat will cause a flashover and the fire will spread to the passenger compartment.

Most vehicle fires are not caused by engineering defects- they are caused by poor maintenance. Still, the cause of most car fires may never really be known. The intensity of the blaze tends to destroy evidence of its cause. Most car fires are not investigated - the debris is cleared from the roadway and the fire department makes an educated guess about the cause.

There are about half a dozen flammable liquids associated with a vehicle. There are an additional number of flammable solids, or “solid propellants,” that contribute to fire. There are, depending on the vehicle, any number of hoses and pumps that move flammable materials past hot areas of the engine. Any leak in a hose or pump can pour flammable liquids onto the hot engine block or electrical systems- resulting in a fire.

There can be other factors that come into play in an accidental vehicle fire. Debris may accumulate around hot areas on a vehicle. There have been instances where animals have been to blame- squirrels hoarding nuts in an engine or birds building a nest there. A Greensboro, NC Police Officer lost his cruiser to a fire caused by parking on dry leaves while responding to a robbery investigation. The heat from his catalytic converter is believed to be the cause of that fire.

Even a moving vehicle can catch fire if leaves or other flammable debris have managed to accumulate on the catalytic converter. In burning pollution from the exhaust, the converter can reach temperatures of 550° Fahrenheit- more than enough to ignite cloth, paper, leaves or other debris. I have seen cases where debris was blown under the car and lodged into the space above the converter. I have also seen off road vehicles pick up debris that dried out and caught fire.

Other causes of accidental fire are the same as one would expect in a case of a house fire. Driver error (sometimes stupidity) can contribute to a fire. A cab company once lost several vehicles when an employee playing with fireworks accidentally started a multi-car fire. Other car fires have started when people have dropped burning things into cars- cigarettes are a frequent culprit. Fires may start among items stored in a trunk that become ignited for a variety of reasons.

Ford Pinto Gets Glowing Reviews

Occasionally, a design defect can cause or contribute to a car fire. The most famous case is, of course, the Ford Pinto. Early on, Ford realized that the Pinto’s design could cause the gas tank to ignite in a rear-end collision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had set a $200,000 value on human life - a figure that the auto industry would use to budget lawsuits. Using this figure, Ford also calculated a $67,000 value for each severe burn victim.

Ford estimated that the defect would be responsible for 2,100 car fires, killing 180 people and severely burning another 180 people - costing Ford $49.5 million. Fixing the defect would cost $11 per vehicle, for a total of $137 million. Ford chose not to recall the Pinto- financially, 180 deaths was ruled to be the more cost-effective option. In reality, an estimated 500-900 deaths resulted from the defect. Partly that was due to a second defect that Ford engineers were aware of - in a rear-end collision at 40 mph, the car doors would likely jam shut, trapping occupants inside the burning vehicle.

The company did not include safety as part of the objectives of the Pinto’s design. Lee Iacocca, who was president of Ford during the design of the Pinto, said, “Safety doesn’t sell.” Neither does the advertising tag line for the Pinto (withdrawn as the controversy became public), “Pinto leaves you with that warm feeling.”

Ford has also had other problems with defects leading to fires - notably a defect with a cruise control cut-off switch. The switch can cause fires under the hood even if a vehicle has been parked for a while. This defect has caused multiple recalls of Ford vehicles. In 2007, Ford recalled 16 different models, or 3.6 million vehicles for the defect, bringing the total number of vehicles recalled by Ford for the same problem to 10.5 million since 1999. In January 2008, reported that five months after the 2007 recall, there were still 1.8 million vehicles at risk.

On February 4, 2008, Ford issued a second recall on 225,000 vehicles because the repairs made during the first recall were ineffective at preventing a fire. The recall is scheduled to begin in March when Ford dealers will replace the fuel rail assembly in the (again) affected vehicles.

Ford is not alone. In the last six months alone, dozens of individual recall notices affecting hundreds of thousands of vehicles have been issued regarding fire safety concerns- and that number excludes the 3.6 million Fords recalled over fire safety. Ford is also not the only manufacturer to sacrifice fire safety for profit.

GM Produces a Bomb of Its Own

A “value analysis” study was conducted at GM by engineer Edward Ivey in 1973, as he worked for GM to determine the cost of fuel-fed fires. His results showed that GM would be able to save $2.20 per vehicle if it could prevent fuel-fed fires in all crashes. Ivey’s memo attempts to temper the cold analysis with some degree of humanity, “it is really impossible to put a value on human life. This analysis tried to do so in an objective manner but a human fatality is really beyond value, subjectively.”

Notwithstanding the humanity of Ivey’s closing remarks, the Ivey memo became the basis for budgeting fire safety at GM. Veteran GM engineer Ronald Elwell spelled it out during testimony at a trial involving a fatal fire in a 1985 Chevy S-10 Blazer, “Value analysis says all we have got is $2.20 to play with, if you will. We can either put that money in a fuel tank, put that money in a fuel pump, put that money in a fuel line, but, in our opinion, in order to save these people from dying, we can only put $2.20 into the new cars.”

GM’s decision to sell side-saddle fuel tanks in 10 million trucks between 1973 and 1991 is perhaps the worst crash-fire defect in the history of the US Department of Transportation. More than 1,800 people were killed in fire-crashes in these vehicles between 1973 and 2000. As a result of the Ivey memo, GM management refused to install safety devices that would have saved lives - but would have cost more than $2.20 per vehicle. During a deposition, Ivey was asked if there was a worse location for a gas tank than the side-saddle configuration. He responded, “Well, yes…You could put it on the front bumper.”

On April 9, 1993, the NHTSA called on GM to voluntarily recall vehicles with side-saddle fuel tanks. In its response, GM wrote, "General Motors continues to believe that its 1973-87 C/K trucks are neither defective nor contribute to increased injuries or fatalities. Consequently no safety recall of them is necessary." Eventually, an agreement was arranged that allowed GM to avoid a costly recall or compensation for people who own the affected vehicles. Under tremendous political pressure from all three major American auto manufacturers, the NHSTA reversed its recall notice in exchange for a promise from GM to spend $51 million on alternative safety programs. As a result, it is estimated that no less than 5 million of the vehicles are still on the road today.

Still a Danger

Every major manufacturer has had recalls regarding potential fire hazards. Last year, Chrysler recalled 500,000 Dodge Durango SUVs after 66 fires were reported (no injuries were reported with these fires.) Toyota’s most recent fire safety recall came in November, 2007, when it recalled 34,400 2006 Lexus GS 300, IS 250 and IS 350 models in the US due to potential cracks in fuel pipes. No fires have been associated with the Toyota recall.

Yet, in spite of all of the defects that can lead to a fire in a car, most fires are still caused by poor maintenance. Your best bet at preventing a fire is to keep the vehicle properly maintained. Check periodically to make sure that your vehicle is not part of a recall. Most importantly, know what to do in case of fire.

See Part 1 of the series. Coming up: special fire hazards on the road and inside the insurance industry.