Common Causes of Car Fires, Prevention, and What to Do if Your Car Caught on Fire (2023)

Common Causes of Car Fires, Prevention, and What to Do if Your Car Caught on Fire (1)

This article is for information purposes only. The Bryant Law Center does not take car fire or property damage cases unless there is a personal injury involved.

From 2014 to 2016 an estimated 171,500 car fires occurred each year resulting in an annual average of 345 deaths, 1,300 injuries, and $1.1 billion in property damage.

Although they have become less common with improved vehicle safety measures, these dangerous fires do happen, especially following a crash. In fact, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) reports the following disturbing statistics about automotive fires:

  • One in eight fires that fire departments across the nation respond to are highway fires, not including responses to dangerous traffic accidents that sometimes lead to a fire.
  • Almost 40 percent of highway automotive fires are a result of unintentional action.
  • More than 80 percent of highway vehicle fires occur in passenger vehicles.
  • More than 60 percent of highway car fires and approximately 35 percent of fatal fires originated in the vehicle’s engine, running gear, or wheel area.

A car might catch on fire for several reasons, but once the fire reaches the most flammable area of the vehicle, the fuel tank, it could lead to an explosion.

People who suffer burns or injuries from a burning car and/or explosion should contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible to determine their eligibility for compensation.

(Video) Car Fires: What Causes Them And How To Prevent One? | Talking Point | Full Episode

Below we provide some valuable information about the causes for a car to catch fire and what you need to do if you suffer injuries or losses in one.

What Are the Most Common Causes of Car Fires?

Having a broad understanding of the factors that can lead to your vehicle catching on fire can help you prevent it from happening.

Here are some common causes of cars catching fire. Keep in mind that none are mutually exclusive, meaning more than one factor can contribute to a fire.

Poor Maintenance

Common Causes of Car Fires, Prevention, and What to Do if Your Car Caught on Fire (2)

The most frequent human cause of a car catching fire is poor vehicle maintenance. Car owners who don’t maintain their vehicles risk mechanical failure that can contribute to a car fire.

The USFA reports that mechanical failure is the leading cause contributing to the ignition of a vehicle fire about 45 percent of the time.

Vehicle owners who perform regular preventative maintenance on their vehicle can avoid faulty hoses, leaky seals, excessive engine temperature, and worn out electrical wiring that can ultimately lead to a dangerous fire by allowing flammable fluids to leak onto hot exhaust manifolds.

(Video) Top 5 Reasons Cars Catch on Fire - and How to Avoid Them

Impact of Car Crash

Common Causes of Car Fires, Prevention, and What to Do if Your Car Caught on Fire (3)

Auto manufacturers take great care to design vehicles that can withstand a crash without starting a fire or triggering an explosion. Yet, depending on the point of impact of a car accident, fires and explosions still routinely occur.

A traffic accident that occurs at high speeds can create enough force to cause leaks, fluid spills, heat, and smoke. High heat and spillage create the conditions for a fire.

Motor vehicle fires that occur because of car accidents are often the most deadly; the USFA estimates 60 percent of fatal highway automotive fires occur because of a traffic collision.

Electrical Problems

Electrical systems can cause a wide range of problems in a vehicle, one of the most dangerous of which is a fire in a vehicle. The charging cycle in a car battery causes highly flammable and explosive hydrogen to build up around the engine.

If wires are loose or worn, they can throw a spark and ignite that hydrogen. Other wires that run through the vehicle for doors, seats, and radios can also throw a spark and start a fire. If batteries are not properly secured inside the engine compartment or elsewhere, it can also present a fire hazard.

The USFA estimates that almost 30 percent of the time the insulation around electrical wires in a car were the first to ignite in a highway vehicle fire.

(Video) How to prevent a car fire ? Car Fires: Causes, Prevention and What to do if your car is on fire ?

Leaking Fluids

Passenger vehicle systems contain chemical fluids that are hazardous to humans, many of which are highly flammable. Fuel, oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, radiator coolant, and power steering fluid circulate throughout their respective systems when a vehicle is running.

If hoses break or leak, these fluid leaks. On their own, should not usually ignite. However, in the event of a spark from an electrical failure or in an accident, they can ignite.

Most fluid-related fires are referred to as engine fires as they typically start in the engine compartment, where the vast majority of these hazardous liquids are located. Brake fluid and gasoline or diesel, however, run the length of the vehicle, posing a risk of fire throughout the vehicle when something else goes wrong.

Leaky Fuel System

Usually cited as the most common cause for cars to start fire, leaks in the fuel system are dangerous. A car accident or poor maintenance can lead to a fuel leak, but a leak can also emerge spontaneously as a car ages.

Gasoline is the most dangerous fluid in a vehicle. At temperatures above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, just one little spark can cause a fire. Spontaneous combustion, in which gas ignites on its own without a spark, occurs at 495 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you ever smell gasoline in or around your vehicle, immediately try to find the source and stop the leak (either on your own or with the help of a mechanic) to prevent a catastrophic fire or explosion.


Overheated Engines

Common Causes of Car Fires, Prevention, and What to Do if Your Car Caught on Fire (4)

A car engine can overheat for a wide array of reasons, but most causes come back to the cooling system.

A coolant leak, bad radiator fan, faulty water pump, or clogged hose can prevent heat from escaping the engine compartment. When engine temperatures rise, the dangerous fluids in the engine compartment can begin to leak, coming into contact with extremely hot surfaces in the engine and igniting.

Drivers can avoid engine overheating with regular maintenance, but some overheating can occur as a result of a design flaw.

Design Flaws

In designing a new car, vehicle manufacturers sometimes make poor choices that inadvertently increase the risk of a car catching fire. In many cases, manufacturers find and correct these problems through a recall, but often that only happens after multiple vehicles have caught fire because of the design flaw.

Preventing Automotive Fires

The NFPA provides the following advice to prevent automotive fires:

  • Perform regular maintenance on your vehicle or take it to a professional mechanic. If you notice any leakage or your car seems to be running improperly, have it checked out.
  • If you need to transport gasoline, only use a certified, sealed gas can and only transport a small amount. Always keep a window open for ventilation when you transport gas.
  • Never transport gas cans or propane tanks in the passenger area of a vehicle. They should always go in the trunk or the back of a pickup, if you have a truck.
  • Never park a vehicle where flammable items can touch the catalytic converter or exhaust system, and start a fire. A catalytic converter can reach temperatures of 600 degrees under normal conditions
  • Always put safety first behind the wheel to avoid an accident that could lead to an automotive fire.

What to Do if Your Vehicle Catches Fire

Common Causes of Car Fires, Prevention, and What to Do if Your Car Caught on Fire (5)

Drivers often fail to recognize the rising danger of being in a burning car, especially after a car accident. As soon as you suspect one might occur or see evidence that one has started, however, take the following safety measures recommended by the USFA:

(Video) What To Do If Your Car Catches Fire

  • Pull your vehicle over immediately, so you can make a quick exit. Aim to get as far away from traffic as possible.
  • Turn off the engine to help stop any fluid movement that can feed the fire and lead to an explosion.
  • Get all passengers out of the car and move as far away as possible. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends moving at least 100 feet away from a burning vehicle.
  • Once you reach a safe distance, call 911 to report the fire and to send for emergency first responders.
  • Do not attempt, for any reason, to go back to the burning car to get any personal belongings. An explosion can send debris flying over long distances. Bumpers, hatchbacks, tire rims, wheels, axles, engine parts, the exhaust system and more can become shrapnel that cause serious injury, sometimes death, to anyone too close to the vehicle.
  • Never open your hood or trunk if you suspect a fire. This rapid change gives the fire oxygen, which is fuel for the fire that can cause it to grow out of control.

Determining if You Are Eligible for Compensation

There may be many contributing factors when a car catches fire, many of them due to someone else’s dangerous decisions or negligent actions. If you suffered harm in a burning car caused by faulty equipment or a car accident that was not your fault, consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to determine if you are eligible for compensation.

The skilled personal injury lawyers at The Bryant Law Center have the experience, resources, and knowledge to guide you through the insurance claims process and to file a lawsuit against at-fault parties, if necessary.

Contact Bryant Law Center today online using the contact form below or at 270-908-0995 for a free consultation to discuss the events that led to your auto fire, your injuries, and learn whether you have a viable claim.


Common Causes of Car Fires, Prevention, and What to Do if Your Car Caught on Fire? ›

Keep in mind that none are mutually exclusive, meaning more than one factor can contribute to a fire.
  1. Poor Maintenance. The most frequent human cause of a car catching fire is poor vehicle maintenance. ...
  2. Impact of Car Crash. ...
  3. Electrical Problems. ...
  4. Leaking Fluids. ...
  5. Leaky Fuel System. ...
  6. Overheated Engines. ...
  7. Design Flaws.

What should you do if your car is on fire? ›

Stop the car and turn off the ignition. Get every person out of the car, and don't allow anyone to go back to retrieve personal items. Move far from the burning vehicle to avoid the flames and toxic fumes—at least 100 feet—and also keep bystanders back. Call 911.

What is the most common cause of a car fire? ›

The leading causes of vehicle fires were mechanical failures or malfunctions and electrical failures or malfunctions. Older vehicles accounted for three-quarters of the highway vehicle fires caused by mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions. Maintenance is important throughout the vehicle's years of use.

What causes a car to catch in fire? ›

The top cause of vehicle fires is rotted fuel lines that leak gasoline or diesel onto hot engine parts. Gasoline at a temperature of 45 degrees or above can catch fire from a simple spark. Electrical system failures are the second most common cause of car fires in America.

What cars catch on fire the most? ›

It found that hybrid vehicles, which have an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, had the most fires per 100,000 vehicles (3475), while vehicles with just an internal combustion engine placed second (1530 per 100,000). Fully electric vehicles had the fewest: 25 per 100,000.

Where do most vehicle fires start? ›

More than half of all highway vehicle fires originate in the engine area or near the wheels. Less than 20% of vehicle fires originate in the passenger compartment, and fewer than 5% of vehicle fires originate in the cargo area or trunk.

Can a parked car catch fire? ›

Nearly 485,000 vehicles are at risk because of contamination in the antilock brake control module that can cause an electrical short. DETROIT — Hyundai and Kia are telling the owners of nearly 485,000 vehicles in the U.S. to park them outdoors because they can catch fire even if the engines have been turned off.

What cars have been catching on fire? ›

Kia, Hyundai agree to settle lawsuit over vehicle fires and engine defects; owners will split $760M settlement
  • 2011-2019 Hyundai Sonata.
  • 2013-2019 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport.
  • 2014-2015, 2018-2019 Hyundai Tucson.
  • 2011-2019 Kia Optima.
  • 2012-2019 Kia Sorento.
  • 2011-2019 Kia Sportage.
May 2, 2022

How many cars catch on fire? ›

Number of U.S. highway vehicle fires 1980-2020

In 2020, there were around 173,000 highway vehicle fires reported in the United States. This is a decrease from the previous year, where there were 189,500 highway vehicle fires reported across the country.

Can a car explode if it's on fire? ›

Car Explosions Are Really Rare

Those odds are very rare. While fuel vapors can combust to create an explosion in a car, this requires flammable vapors trapped in an enclosed space to be introduced to a flame. The gas tank may seem like the obvious danger in this situation, but liquid gasoline will not explode.

Can you put out a car fire with water? ›

Do not put water on the flames, the water might wash the burning petrol away to other areas where it will cause further problems. If it's crucial you attempt to put the fire out without the proper fire extinguisher, earth and sand are a good way of suffocating the fire.

How much water does it take to put out a car fire? ›

“Normally a car fire you can put out with 500 to 1,000 gallons of water,” Austin Fire Department Division Chief Thayer Smith said, according The Independent. “But Teslas may take up to 30,000-40,000 gallons of water, maybe even more, to extinguish the battery pack once it starts burning and that was the case here.”

Can cars catch fire on their own? ›

Can a car spontaneously combust? Yes, but it's not particularly common anymore. Cars catch fire mostly due to electrical or mechanical reasons. Indicators that a car could potentially catch fire are fluid or oil leaks, loose wiring or rapid changes to fuel levels or the engine temperature.


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