What Should You Do If Your Car Catches On Fire?

Car is on fire on the side of the road, while a silver minivan passes to the left.

When it comes to auto insurance claims, car fires are relatively rare. But if you’ve ever seen a vehicle engulfed in flames, you know it can be a frightening scene.

According to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), there are about 200,000 vehicle fires each year in the United States – causing nearly $2 billion in property damage and claiming hundreds of lives. Since car fires can happen at any moment (and escalate quickly), being prepared on how to react will provide the best chance of protecting yourself and your family.

Here’s what you need to know about how car fires get started – and what you should do if you ever encounter one.

Why do cars catch on fire?

There are a few common causes of vehicle fires. They include:

  • Mechanical failure: According to the NFPA, mechanical failures and malfunctions are the leading cause of vehicle fires. This could include the failure of an electrical component, like faulty wiring or a bad battery. Or it could be caused by a broken line that carries gas or oil to your vehicle’s engine.
  • Collisions: During a collision, damaged vehicles can leak fluids that become fuel for a fire. While NFPA data shows that accidents account for only 5% of car fires, they are responsible for 63% of car fire deaths. This is because an accident can make it difficult to exit the vehicle– due to injuries sustained during the collision and/or damage to the car itself. 
  • Poor maintenance:. Older vehicles account for three-quarters of highway vehicle fires caused by mechanical or electrical failures. Often, issues like oil leaks and other neglected maintenance tasks are to blame.

What should I do if my car catches on fire?

A car fire can engulf your vehicle in a matter of minutes, so time is of the essence. If you find yourself in a vehicle that catches fire, follow these steps.

  1. Pull over. Get your vehicle off the roadway and come to a complete stop as soon as possible.
  2. Shut off the engine. Turning the vehicle off will stop the flow of gasoline to the engine. It also disables power to many of your car’s electrical components.
  3. Get out of the car. Everyone in your vehicle should get out immediately. Once you leave, stay at least 100 feet from the car and do not return to get any personal items – your safety is more important than anything you may have left behind.
  4. Call 911. Another motorist may have already called for emergency services. But you should always call yourself to ensure a fire truck is on its way.

What if the flames are coming from someone else’s ride? Read our related article on what to do if you witness a car accident.

Should I try to put out a car fire?

If your car is on fire, you may be tempted to put it out yourself. While it may be possible to stop a fire with a Class B or Class C fire extinguisher, most safety experts advise it’s best to just keep your distance and leave the job to the professionals. (Read our related blog story on what to know about fire extinguishers.)

Opening your car’s hood or trunk can cause a sudden increase in airflow to the fire – which will make matters worse. And many of your car’s components (such as airbags, gas shocks, fuel tanks and batteries) can explode during a fire, sending dangerous shrapnel in your direction.

What kind of damage can a car fire cause?

A fire can cause extensive damage to your vehicle in a short amount of time. According to the NFPA, about two-thirds of all car fires start in the engine compartment. That means there can be significant damage to your engine, transmission and electronic systems. The heat from the flames causes substantial paint damage. And smoke can cause irreparable damage to your interior and ventilation systems.

Due to the extent of all this damage, most cars that catch fire are considered a total loss by insurance companies. Learn more about how a car is determined a “total loss.”

Will my auto insurance cover a car fire?

A car fire can be covered by your auto insurance. But it all depends on the type of coverage you have, as well as the circumstances of the fire.

If your car catches fire because of an auto accident, then the damage generally can be covered under your collision insurance. However, if a car fire occurs for reasons not related to an accident – for example, a lightning strike or vandalism – that’s when comprehensive insurance can cover the damage.

Once your car is paid off, both of these coverages are optional. Questions about your specific policy? Talk to your local ERIE agent.

How can you prevent a car fire?

Of course, the best way to protect yourself from a car fire is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here are some tips:

  • Maintain your vehicle. Nearly every fluid in your car is flammable. So don’t ignore that oil leak. Have your car regularly serviced by a professional mechanic and always get it checked out if it doesn’t seem to be running properly. (Related: What’s a Multi-Point Inspection, And When Do I Need One?)
  • Be careful when transporting fuel. Whether you’re getting gasoline for the lawn mower or grabbing a new propane cylinder for the grill, it’s important to transport it safely. Gas should only be stored in a sealed, approved container. And fuels should never be carried in the passenger area of your vehicle.
  • Watch where you park. The catalytic converter in your car’s exhaust system can reach temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So avoid parking in areas where something flammable, like dry grass or loose paper, can come in contact with the exhaust.

A Better Day Starts Here

No one pencils a car mishap in their calendar. But when you experience an unlucky break, that’s when we shine. Brighter times are ahead when you call on Erie Insurance, because it’s our job to help you handle the unexpected and get things back to normal. Get in touch with a local ERIE agent in your neighborhood today for a free, no-obligation auto insurance quote.


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