Vehicle Fires Figure Significantly in Fire Death, NFPA Study Shows

Vehicle fires claimed more lives in the United States in 2004 than apartment fires, according to a new study conducted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The study calls vehicle fires "a major component of the fire death problem."

Last year, 19 percent of the 1.55 million reported fires were vehicle fires, according to NFPA. An estimated 550 people died and 1,500 were injured in 297,000 vehicle fires, at a cost of more than $1.3 billion in property damage.

The vast majority of vehicle fires involve highway vehicles such as cars, trucks and buses.

During the 4-year period of 1999-2002, an estimated 270,000 highway vehicle fires were reported per year, resulting in an average of 380 civilian deaths, 1,310 civilian injuries and $1 billion in property damage, according to NFPA.

On average, 31 such fires were reported every hour and one person died every day as a result of these fires.

What causes these fires? NFPA's study found that:

  • Nearly half the time (48 percent), mechanical failure or malfunction such as leaks, breaks, backfires or worn-out parts is to blame.
  • Nearly one out of four cases (23 percent) results from electrical failure or malfunction. Equipment failure is a more common cause of fire among older vehicles.
  • Some 15 percent of these fires are intentionally set.
  • Collisions or overturns caused only 3 percent of the highway vehicle fires but 57 percent of the associated fire deaths.
  • Two-thirds of highway vehicle fires start in the engine, running gear or wheel area, but fuel tank or fuel line fires pose the highest death risk, according to the study.

Older teens and young adults face the highest risk of dying in a highway vehicle fire, according to the study. People between 75 and 84 had a highway vehicle fire death rate considerably below average, and those 85 or older had a rate only slightly above average.

Summer is Peak Time for Vehicle Fires

The study underscores trends. For instance, most highway vehicle fires happen in summer. July is the peak month; August and June are the next-highest peak months. The fewest highway vehicle fires occur in November and December.

In a pattern nearly identical to that of home fires, the fewest fires happened between 3 and 6 a.m., while the numbers increased steadily as the day moved on, peaking between 3 and 6 p.m. The numbers then decreased steadily until 3 a.m.

Like home fire deaths, highway vehicle fire deaths are more likely to result from fires that occur late at night or in the early morning hours. The peak period for highway vehicle fire deaths was between midnight and 3 a.m., followed by 3 to 6 a.m. The period from 9 p.m. to midnight ranked third.

Preventing Vehicle Fires

NFPA offers the following safety tips to avoid vehicle fires:

  • Maintain your car. Follow manufacturer's recommendations for scheduled maintenance. Have any mechanical or electrical problems repaired promptly.
  • If a fire starts in a vehicle you are driving, pull over to the side of the road if possible, stop the vehicle, turn off the engine, get out of the vehicle and move away quickly.
  • Call the fire department. Do not attempt to open the hood or fight an engine compartment fire on your own.
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