How Do Cars Catch on Fire?

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Car fires can be caused by human error or mechanical failure. They’re often the result of an accident, but they can occur “spontaneously” due to lack of maintenance.
The car insurance comparison app Jerry has compiled everything you need to know about car fires.
Of course, if one ever happens to you, you’ll need great car insurance to cover repair costs. Use Jerry to make sure you get the coverage (and price) you deserve.
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Can a car catch on fire by itself?

Spontaneous combustion is a frequently employed trope in blockbuster movies—but in real life, cars don’t typically catch on fire by themselves. A car fire may appear spontaneous if it occurs without getting into a crash, but there is usually a simple explanation for the situation.

How do cars catch on fire?

Malfunctions in the electrical system

Electrical problems are a common cause of car fires. Most car batteries contain hydrogen gas, which is explosive. Any loose wire or dripping fluid near the battery could spark a dramatic flame.
There are electrical wires running throughout your vehicle—directing the automatic doors and heated seats, for example. An invisible frayed wire could trigger a car fire without a warning sign that it was wearing out.

Engines that overheat

While it’s unlikely that an overheated engine will cause a fire all by itself, it could definitely be a key player.
An engine that is running hot means that nearby liquids will also overheat. Everything is located under the hood, after all. A hot engine will affect the nearby reservoirs. Your coolant and oil (combustive fluids!) could spike to unstable levels, spilling and then sparking a fire wherever the drops land.
Don’t let a hot engine pass you by! Take your vehicle to a mechanic as soon as you notice a problem. It’s probably a simple issue with the radiator or a gasket—either way, your mechanic’s fee is definitely far better than a car fire.

Catalytic converter heat

Overheating catalytic converters are a common offender.
An overburdened engine (due to worn-out spark plugs, for example) will send more particulates into the exhaust system. This causes your catalytic converter to work overtime, which leads to overheating. A little overheating isn’t a big deal, but over time it could become a major problem.
With an increase of a thousand degrees Fahrenheit—easy for an overworked catalytic converter to reach—your car will be helpless to resist the heat. Its insulation and floor carpeting will quickly catch fire, even when buffered by the metal body. If you start to feel heat, it’s time to get out of the vehicle.

Flaws in the manufacturing

Known manufacturer errors usually lead to recalls, and most models undergo intense testing—no brand wants to be known as the combustion brand!
But a design flaw can trigger a car fire.
A flaw won’t usually spark the fire by itself, but it could create the ideal circumstances for the flames to catch. In fact, every well-known manufacturer has issued a recall related to a fire hazard. Make sure you research the recall history of the model if you’re considering buying a used vehicle.

Batteries in electric and hybrid vehicles

Electric vehicles don’t have as many combustible fluids under the hood (i.e., no gasoline), so you’d think they would carry a lower risk for car fires. But hybrid vehicles are especially vulnerable to car fires because of the flammable solvents in their batteries.
It’s true that electric cars get more news coverage because the technology is newer—but both Tesla and Chevy models have caught fire during testing. Engineers are creating more stable models, but the design of EVs and their batteries do lead to an increased risk of fire.

Leaks in the fuel system

Yikes, leaking flammable fluid! Gasoline is one of the most combustible liquids in your car’s system. Usually, your gasoline is kept safely isolated inside its container—but a small drip of gas in a hot environment can lead to tragedy.
If you smell gas, pull over at once. It could be a sign that there is a leak in your fuel system. Given its proximity to plastic and hot metal, a car fire could be building even as you get the car off the road. It doesn’t take much—a tiny rip or dent could set things off.

Bad maintenance habits

Another common culprit is poor maintenance. A little sloppiness may not seem too bad on the surface, but it does increase your risk of experiencing a car fire.
If you frequently spill liquids when topping up your oil, for instance, you could inadvertently be creating a fire hazard. This is especially true if you spill every time you top up.
Avoiding necessary maintenance is another guaranteed recipe for disaster.
If you let parts wear out, your vehicle is far more likely to spring a leak or release a spark. To prevent this situation, take your car to the mechanic regularly. Replace hoses when they wear out and investigate any odd smells as soon as they appear.

Human error

Leaving a lit cigarette inside the car can easily start a fire. Seriously, just stub it out before you pop out to run an errand. If you caused a fire due to your own negligence, your insurance may not cover repair costs.
A bad DIY repair job could also trigger a fire. How? Faulty wiring and a leaky gasket are a combustive combination. If you’re not car-savvy, then it’s best to leave the repairs to a professional.

Fluids that leak (and spark)

Your car is built to safely contain several types of highly dangerous (and flammable) liquids—power steering fluid, brake fluid, coolant, transmission fluid, engine oil, and gasoline. But over time, these containers can erode or spring a leak.
When any one of these liquids escapes its container, the risk of a car fire increases dramatically. A tiny little leak is quite a big deal! Even a small drop of fluid is flammable and can start a fire.
What’s the solution? Check carefully for small nicks and tears in the hoses and lines. You may think a fender bender wasn’t too serious, but it could have damaged a reservoir.
The same advice holds true for driving over rocky roads—examine your car carefully after crossing rough terrain, since many flammable liquids are circulated along the entire length of your vehicle.

Arson and vandalism

Vandalism and arson are sometimes to blame for a car fire.
Of course, most people don’t have a mortal enemy intent on cutting fuel lines or filling their tank with the wrong liquid. But it’s not impossible that miscreants have tampered with your vehicle when you weren’t looking.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult to prove that a vandal caused your car fire because the damage usually obliterates all evidence. Some people even set their own cars on fire for insurance fraud.

Accidents

Accidents are the most obvious—and common—cause of car fires.
When your car crashes into another vehicle, it could sustain damage to its engine or gas tank. Crumple zones are designed to protect these dangerous (and combustible) areas, but it’s not a guarantee. Any small leak in your fuel tank could lead to a fire.
Usually, a car fire is caused by a combination of factors. The good news is that you can avoid some of the causes by driving carefully and maintaining your vehicle.
Key Takeaway Human errors and accidents are the most common causes of car fires.

How often do cars catch on fire?

Car fires are pretty rare. Less than 200,000 cars catch on fire every year in the United States—and there are 276 million vehicles registered. So your chances of suffering a car fire are low, but not zero.
A car fire is usually triggered by an accident that damages the engine or fuel lines, poor maintenance, or human factors (like leaving a lit cigarette in the car or an act of vandalism). Mechanical and chemical malfunctions can cause a car fire, too.
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What happens if my car catches on fire?

Don’t pop the hood to figure out the cause—and don’t try to film it!
If your car catches on fire, get out of the vehicle immediately and call for help. It may not seem serious from inside the vehicle, but that’s because it’s still contained beneath the hood. Emergency responders use special chemicals to douse the flames.
Once the fire is out, it’s time to file a claim with your insurance company. Assess the damages and provide documentation to your insurer. Get a quote from a garage and schedule the repairs.
Not sure if you have coverage for car fires? Use the free insurance comparison app Jerry to quickly compare rates and coverage levels. Make sure you have a policy that protects you in the event of a fire. If you don’t, switch to a new provider with Jerry’s help.
“I found a rate HALF the monthly payment I was making previously. It was fast and stupid easy to switch.” —Satisfied Jerry User
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Frequently asked questions

Help! My car is on fire, what should I do?

Get out of the car immediately—even a small fire won’t stay small for long. Once you are safely out of the vehicle, call the fire department. They will use dry powder or a foam fire extinguisher to put out the fire.
When you’re sure it’s safe, return to document the situation for insurance purposes.

What makes a car catch on fire?

The basic elements required for a car fire are fuel, oxygen, and ignition. In other words, a fire requires material to burn, a spark to ignite the flames, and oxygen to keep it going.

Will my insurance go up after a car fire?

It’s possible. Accidents are an indication of risk, whether or not you were at fault. Insurance companies may raise your rates after you file a claim.
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