Recalls help reduce risk of non-crash vehicle fires

The frequency of vehicle insurance claims for fire damage was significantly reduced by recalls aimed at addressing potential fire safety issues, according to an analysis by the Highway Loss Data Institute. However, the fire risk remained elevated since many drivers don't respond to open recalls.

The analysis focused specifically on vehicle fires that weren't caused by crashes. According to a 2012 report by the National Fire Protection Association, only 4 percent of vehicle fires between 2006 and 2010 were caused by a collision or rollover, compared to 45 percent stemming from a mechanical failure or malfunction and 24 percent caused by an electrical problem.

Sixty-nine percent of vehicle fires during this period occurred in the area of the engine, running gears, or wheels. Just 2 percent of fires started in the gas tank or fuel lines, although these incidents were responsible for a disproportionate share—15 percent—of deaths caused by vehicle fires.

Automakers typically issue a safety recall when they determine that a mechanical or electrical issue poses a fire risk. HLDI estimates that approximately 6.8 million vehicles were recalled due to fire-related defects in 2017 and through Aug. 8 of this year.

Naturally, vehicles affected by these recalls had a higher risk of non-crash fires. HLDI determined that 2007 to 2017 model year vehicles under recall for these issues were 14 percent more likely to be associated with a non-crash fire claim than vehicles not subject to recall. Motorcycles under recall were 18 percent more likely to have a non-crash fire claim.

Passenger cars affected by a fire defect recall were 19 percent more likely to have a claim than unaffected vehicles. However, the elevated risk dropped to 11 percent after the recall was issued. Similarly, the frequency of non-crash fire related claims was 32 percent higher for affected motorcycles prior to a recall and 15 percent higher after the recall was instituted.

The report said vehicles subject to a recall were still more likely to be associated with a higher frequency of fire claims because drivers may neglect to address the vehicle. The issue highlighted in the recall can be repaired free of charge at an approved service center. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that about one in four vehicles under recall aren't taken in for repairs.

"Our work shows that recalls reduce the risk of a non-crash fire, but they don't eliminate the risk," said Matt Moore, senior vice president at HLDI. "Much risk remains because not all recalled vehicles are repaired."

HLDI said drivers can check their vehicle identification number with the NHTSA's lookup tool to see if their vehicle is subject to any recalls. The institute also recommended that drivers buying a used vehicle notify the manufacturer, so they receive any future notices of recalls.

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