Vehicle fires might be on the decline, according to new data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Firefighters responded to 215,000 vehicle fires in 2010, a 1.6 percent decrease from the previous year.
Yet vehicle fires are still frightening, dangerous and costly. They killed 285 civilians in 2010, caused $1.3 billion in direct property damage between 2003 and 2007, according to NFPA. Preventing yourself from getting burned involves a combination of vehicle maintenance and the right auto insurance protection.
To reduce the risk of a vehicle fire, keep your ride in good mechanical repair. NFPA found that most vehicle fires began because of mechanical failure (49 percent) or electrical failure (23 percent). Another 5 percent of those fires were caused by exposure to another fire. Just 3 percent were caused by a collision or overturn.
AAA recommends having a professional inspect your car at least annually to look for any potential fire hazards. Check periodically for any leaks, and examine your hoses and wiring for signs of wear or damage. As you're driving, watch for signals of a potential fire-causing problem -- unusual smoke coming from the tailpipe, backfiring or a louder-than-usual exhaust noise. If you add any extra equipment, like an MP3 player or speakers, get a licensed professional to do it to prevent wiring problems. You also might want to keep a fire extinguisher in your car.
If your vehicle does catch fire, the most important thing to do is to get everyone out and keep them a safe distance (at least 100 feet) away from the vehicle. Call 911 immediately. Don't open the hood or the trunk -- letting the air in could make the fire burn more intensely. If you have a fire extinguisher, you can use it, but maintain a safe distance from the burning car.
If you're in an area that's threatened by wildfires and can't drive your vehicle out of danger, the best you can do is try to protect your vehicle from the damage caused by smoke and ash. Put the car in a garage or buy a heavy-duty cover if you have to keep the vehicle outdoors. Because driving a vehicle in a smoke-filled area can clog a vehicle's filters, plan on replacing your air filter and the passenger ventilation filters after the fire has been put out.
For financial protection from damage done by vehicle fires, you'll need to make sure that you have comprehensive coverage as part of your auto insurance policy. Comprehensive insurance covers the cost (after a deductible) of non-collision damage to your car -- including damage caused by fires. Your home or renter's insurance should cover personal belongings that were in the car when it caught fire.
When you contact your insurer to start the claims process, GEICO recommends having the following information on hand: contact information for the emergency agency that responded to the fire, information about recent repairs to the vehicle, information about what was damaged and who was injured, and a description of the vehicle (including mileage and upgrades).