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THE GOODS : Sounding an Alarm About Car Fires


Question: I am amazed by how often I am stuck in a traffic jam KNX or KFWB blames on a car fire. What causes these car fires and is there anything I should be doing to prevent a fire in my car?


Answer: Thousands of cars every year are destroyed by spontaneous car fires, which have received scant attention from the federal government, car manufacturers or major automobile-safety organizations.

The majority of these fires do not appear to be caused by any known safety defects, but rather by wear and tear on engines, fuel leaks, faulty electrical systems and cooling systems that in many cases are poorly maintained by car owners. Arson also figures into many of these fires, although nobody is sure about the frequency of that either.

In the last year, the Los Angeles Fire Department recorded 6,084 car fires, of which about 1,300 were arson fires in stolen cars. Presumably, most of the rest caught on fire for other reasons.

One of the most frequent causes of car fires is believed to be worn-out radiator and heating hoses, which burst and douse the engine compartment with antifreeze. Often, the engine has overheated, which caused the hoses to burst in the first place.

Ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze, is a sibling of the alcohol family and will burn at high temperatures, according to George Parker, research and development chief at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So, you want to make sure your hoses are in good condition and your car is not overheating.

Another cause of car fires is faulty electrical equipment. Cars have a lot more electrical gear--wiring, computers, power windows, power seats and other convenience items--than in the past.

As these systems age, short circuits can develop that lead to sparks that ignite nearby combustible materials. In older cars you should check for frayed or loose wires.

A fuel leak in the engine compartment is an obvious hazard. Car manufacturers no longer use rubber fuel lines, so there is a lower risk of leaks in newer cars. Any time you smell gas, it's time to pull over and check out the problem.

Another cause of fires is missing air cleaners. An older, poorly tuned car can backfire. When that happens--when the spark plug fires with the intake valve still open--the flame shoots back into the intake manifold and up through the carburetor. The air cleaner will prevent the flame from continuing into the engine compartment.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not investigate fires that are not involved with automobile crashes, Parker said. (About 2% of fatal car crashes involved fires between 1979 and 1992, according to safety administration figures.)

Even when automobile fires are not caused by a crash, they can be quite hazardous. Fires can quickly engulf a passenger compartment and hold the potential to detonate the gas tank.

Often, motorists have no idea their car is on fire until it is burning furiously. In engine fires, the first indication sometimes comes when the paint on the hood begins to melt and bubble.

Some motorists carry fire extinguishers, although using an extinguisher can be dangerous. You should never attempt to open the hood of a burning engine. Better, call the Fire Department and then your insurance agent.

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