Compiled by Annalise Kempen
Fire and water - two elements of nature that result in opposite reactions: when one stares at a firepit or a bonfire and listens to the sound of water such as a waterfall or waves breaking, it typically makes one calm and relaxed. Yet, these same two elements have caused the greatest kinds of destruction on our planet and are two elements that no motorist would ever want to encounter while driving.
Who could forget the situation a few years ago when Ford Kuga owners feared for their lives as some of these sport utility vehicles caught fire? It resulted in the manufacturer issuing a safety recall for the affected models to address an engine overheating condition that could cause a fire. In their January 2016 statement announcing the recall, Ford said that the engine overheating was caused by a lack of coolant circulation which can lead to a crack of the cylinder head, and therefore an oil leak. "When leaking oil reaches a hot engine surface, it can potentially catch fire," the statement read. The manufacturer further warned that when a Kuga owner (driver) notices an indication that the engine may be overheating or warning lights on the instrument cluster, they should pull over as soon as it is safe to do, switch off the engine and ensure that all occupants are safely out of the vehicle. The vehicle manufacturer cautioned about opening the bonnet and recommended that the driver called the emergency services first and then roadside assistance (Ford, 2017). Unfortunately for Ford Kuga owners, and despite the recall, in January 2018, another Kuga caught fire, bringing back the nightmare for these vehicle owners (Wheels24, 2018).
According to the American Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), approximately one in eight fires in the USA is a highway vehicle fire and that approximately 171 500 such fires occurred annually between 2014 and 2016. These vehicle fires resulted in at least 345 fatalities and 1300 injuries each year (DriversEd.com). Even though the USA has a population of more than 330 million people, making these statistics a drop in the ocean, any incident that results in death and injury is a concern. Although there are no accurate statistics available for these types of incidents in South Africa - our country's high rate of violent protests, increases all drivers' chances of being caught in such a life-threatening situation. Along with what happened to some Kuga vehicle owners, it is important to be prepared when such an eventuality occurs.
Flames are not the only danger
Although we all fear being caught in any fire and not being able to escape, there is another threat when it comes to vehicle fires. According to an article published by Arrive Alive (Nd(a)), the true danger lies in toxic fumes since vehicles have a lot of synthetic materials that can emit harmful and deadly gases when they burn. One of the main by-products of fires is carbon monoxide - a colourless, odourless and tasteless gas. The most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, weakness, headache, an upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. Sadly, if you inhale too much carbon monoxide, you can lose consciousness and it can be fatal (CDC, 2021).
Vehicle fires generate tremendous heat, with parts of the vehicle that can explode due to the heat and which will result in debris being shot out over great distances. Fires may also cause the airbags to deploy, while hazardous substances such as battery acid can cause injury even without it being ignited (Arrive Alive, Nd(a)).
Possible reason for vehicle fires
Without getting technical about the mechanics of a vehicle, there are different reasons why a vehicle can catch fire which include a road crash, mechanical failure, electrical malfunction, fluid leaks or a design problem (Serafini and Serafini, 2018) or when they are deliberately set alight such as during protest actions. Dale Lomas (2020), a journalist writing in a blog post for the National Motorists Association, informs us that more than half of vehicle fires are due to technical issues such as improper usage or the installation of additional equipment. And a vehicle's age is not a deciding factor - rather its condition and maintenance…