Law Offices of Paul K. Schrier, PLLC

Why cars explode into fireballs

When people think of exploding cars it is typically associated with the special effects in the latest action movies. In real life, however, we know cars don't spontaneously explode into a fireball after an accident. Or can they?

Although it is rare, it is possible for real automobiles to suddenly go up in flames. It is different than in the movies, however, as the cars don't necessarily explode but instead burn with an intensity that produces a similar after-effect.

The science behind car explosions

The primary reason cars don’t usually explode is because gasoline isn’t explosive – at least not by itself. To get gasoline to explode in a car engine it has to be vaporized, mixed with air and then exposed to a spark of flame. Otherwise, gasoline will burn but will not explode.

Even though they won’t explode, cars can indeed burn intensely. To get this to happen, a collision usually has to result in a fuel line getting cut or holes getting poked in a gas tank. Once a fire sparks it can spread quickly, particularly in modern cars that are filled with plastic and foam materials.

Collision-caused car fires are rare

So, what are the chances that a car will catch fire after a collision? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) examined this very issue in a 2010 report. They found that only 4 percent of the 287,000 vehicles that caught fire on US highways from 2003 to 2007 did so because of a collision. Additionally, around 10 percent of those car fires were caused by a fire from the fuel tank or fuel line.

This does not mean that automobile fires caused by collisions are not dangerous. The same NFPA study found that although accidents account for only 4 percent of vehicle fires, they are the cause of three of every five, or 58 percent, of automobile fire deaths.

Stay safe during a vehicle fire

Although it can be difficult to predict when a vehicle may catch fire, particularly after an accident, below are some tips from the NFPA on how to stay safe:

  • If possible, move your car to a safe location off the road.
  • Turn off the engine.
  • Get everyone out of the car immediately.
  • Move at least 100 feet from the burning car and safely away from traffic.
  • Do not return to your car for anything.
  • Call 9-1-1.

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