From Model T to Modern Times, car safety is at it's highest level

Last night I planned to go for an evening run, then watch a DVD. The run went as planned, but the DVD was replaced with morbid fascination as I watched cars burn, innocent people's businesses being looted and homes destroyed in the rapidly spreading London riots. It made compelling viewing, but it also made me wonder about car safety and how the average motor vehicle is built to withstand fire.

A few years ago, I drove past a Beetle on the side of the A12, it's unusual parking spot the clear result of an engine bay fire. It has always been in the back of my mind as a Beetle driver, the potential hazard of fire occurring due to old wiring. Your house will have had the wiring updated, so why not your classic car? Indeed, many vintage show cars I have seen have a small fire extinguisher secured somewhere along the central tunnel.

Of course, most modern cars have safety devices fitted which shut off the fuel pump in the event of a collision, minimising any risk of fire, and with most modern vehicles being made up of such a high proportion of plastic and PVC which can give off toxic fumes before even catching alight, this is rather comforting to know.

There are some pretty basic common sense tips to make sure your vehicle is safe though, regardless of whether the car is a vintage show winner, a rat-look bug, or the latest pristine Ferrari. In the main, have your vehicle properly serviced at least once a year where any potential leaks can be corrected. I've actually had a fuel leak before in my Bug, it was pretty obvious by the smell, but when you are only getting 22 miles per gallon, it pays to not be losing it on the road (regardless of the safety aspects).

In 2006, Communities & Local Government (CLG) Sustainable Buildings Division asked the Building Research Establishment to carry out a study in relation to car park safety, this naturally involved an assessment of the materials that go into the make up of the modern car. The result of this commission was the publication of “Fire Spread in Car Parks BD2552” published last year.

One of the conclusions the report came to was that the installation of a sprinkler system in car parks can restrict any potential automobile fire to the source vehicle, rather than seeing a rapid spread to neighbouring cars or vans and the air being replaced wholesale by toxic fumes and smoke. Between 1994 – 2005, 162 such fires occurred where an automatic sprinkler system was in place, and of these fires, 100 were put out by the sprinkler system or successfully contained.

If you want to carry a fire extinguisher in your car for peace of mind though, what type should you get? If a fire occurs, it is more than likely going to be attributable to the engine or electrical system, so a dry powder type is the recommended choice by many for being the most versatile in dealing with a number of different situations. The usual size to carry for a car is a 1kg appliance. In some countries it is even mandatory to have one in your chosen mode of transport.

It is a comforting fact that here in the UK, accidental car fires are decreasing, and where they do occur, the majority are contained by the engine bay firewall. Although if you've been watching the London riots over the past few days it will come as no surprise to hear that car arson is on the increase.

Now, if reading that last sentence and recent events have you concerned about whether or not your vehicle is insured against fire during a riot, we would recommend that you check your policy document for any exclusions, or contact your insurer directly regarding your car insurance.

In Australia, they've taken the examination of how a car behaves in or near a fire to the next level. On 7 February 2009, a series of bushfires in Victoria resulted in a closer examination of the way an automobile behaves in a fire situation. The study looked at the maximum heat-load a vehicle could sustain whilst providing a safe haven for it's occupants in relation to heat and air quality. One of the results of the study was particularly surprising, concluding that there was no significant involvement of the car fuel systems in any of the fire-driven experiments that they carried out.

So here we are then. The journey from the Ford Model T to the Nissan all electric Leaf has resulted in car safety being at a higher level than ever before. Current manufacturing laws and guidelines provide security in vehicle construction, and modern efficiency and understanding of the relating issues to safety give one result: safer automobiles for us all to enjoy.

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