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Car fires: Thousands occur each year in Canada. How to stay safe

Heroic efforts by five strangers, who acted in the nick of time, saved the life of a Toronto man, pulling him out of a burning car on an Ontario highway earlier this month.

The driver suffered a seizure, causing him to crash his vehicle off the Queen Elizabeth Highway, but seconds before the car was engulfed in flames, he was dragged out to safety. With more people on the road as summer travel picks up amid heat warnings, experts say Canadians can take steps to stay safe.

Read more: How a man was rescued from a burning car on QEW in Mississauga Transport Canada estimates there are approximately 10,000 vehicle fires across the country annually because of arson, improper servicing or repairs, collisions and defects.

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On average, 93 vehicle fires per year are reported that are alleged to relate to a safety defect, the agency told Global News in an email. Collisions are the most common cause of vehicle fires, followed by manufacturing defects, arson and incorrect vehicle modifications, said Keith Fowler, a certified vehicle fire investigator in Edmonton. "In the summertime, a lot of them are caused by overloading the vehicle ... which causes the vehicle to overheat in transmission and related fires," he told Global News.

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The higher the temperature, the greater the chance of a vehicle failure starting a fire, Fowler said.

While winter presents its own risks with block heaters and collisions caused by icy, slippery roads, the summer heat causes "additional challenges" for drivers, said Rob de Pruis, national director of consumer and industry relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Story continues below advertisement "Different seasons pose different circumstances," he said.

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A recent analysis by AutoinsuranceEZ found that hybrid cars in the United States were most likely to catch fire per 100,000 sales, followed by gasoline vehicles. Electric vehicles ranked third, with only 25 fires per 100,000 electric vehicle sales reported. Two complex systems in the hybrid setup, including the fuel tank, exhaust and heat generated by the engine, increase the fire risk, explained Fowler, whereas EVs that run on batteries with electrical wiring are not as conducive to fire hazards.

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However, EVs are capable of sustaining combustion, which makes it difficult to put fires out as they require thousands of gallons of water, Fowler said. "In an electric car, if the batteries are on fire, it could take upwards of hours to extinguish the fire and there's also a chance that it will reignite again."

Signs and prevention

While car fires may look dangerous, there is usually time to react. Story continues below advertisement Generally, the first thing a driver will notice ahead of a potential car fire is a burning smell coming from inside the vehicle followed by smoke, said Fowler.

And oftentimes, he said these initial warning signs are flagged by other drivers passing by.

Read more: Youth passenger dies in fatal Rocky View County collision that left car ablaze As soon as there is an indication of smoke or smell, pull over, exit and move at least 50 to 75 feet away from the vehicle before calling 911, Fowler said. "You would generally have lots of time to get out of the vehicle before you're adding a risk of being damaged from the vehicle," he added.

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Regular maintenance and proper repair can help decrease the likelihood of car fires, experts say.

Story continues below advertisement "That is really one of the biggest things that you can do to prevent any type of fire that could be occurring, whether or not you're involved in a collision," said de Pruis. This year, as of July 26, 400 motor vehicle safety recalls have been issued in the country and among those, 92 were to address the risk of fire, affecting 650,937 vehicles, according to Transport Canada.

In 2021, 179 motor vehicle recalls were related to fire risks, involving 1,055,081 vehicles.

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Hyundai Auto Canada said it actively monitors and evaluates potential safety concerns, including non-collision fires, with all of its vehicles. "Out of an abundance of caution, Hyundai always emphasizes to our customers/owners if there is a potential fire risk in any recall even if there has not been a fire event," the automaker told Global News in an email. Story continues below advertisement

Both de Pruis and Fowler stressed staying up to date with manufacturer recalls and taking immediate action when required.

Because the vast majority of vehicle collisions are caused by human error, ensure you're doing everything you can to drive safe, de Pruis said.

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