If you watch action movies, you see it all the time. Cars exploding into a ball of flames just after the hero crawls out. Or cars crashing into something and flying into water while the hero fights his way out — or holds his breath and hides while being shot at, you know, depending on the movie.
But in real life, how often do car crashes result in a car fire or submersion in water?
Actually, not that often.
This refutes the claim some people make that wearing a seat belt can actually be more dangerous than not wearing one in a crash. It may be true to say there are types of accidents that might be more difficult to get out of quickly when you’re restrained by a seat belt, mainly those that result in car fires or water submersion, but the odds of either of those results are very small.
Less than one-half of 1% of all car accidents resulting in injury involve being submersed in water or engulfed in flame.
Plus, if you are unrestrained during a crash the likelihood of having a severe injury from the crash that incapacitates the passenger from being able to get out quickly is much higher.
So let’s look at these two scary but remote crash results more closely.
It’s true, historically, vehicle fires used to be quite common. Back in 1980 there were 456,000 car fires. In 1978 a big issue occurred with Pintos catching on fire. This led to car manufacturers looking at design changes in vehicles to limit the three elements of the fire triangle (heat, fuel, oxygen) from coming together.
Cars bursting into flames after a crash is a pretty rare event. According to the National Fire Protection Association, of the 174,000 vehicle fires in 2015:
- 49% were due to mechanical failure or malfunction
- 11% were due to leaks or breaks
- 23% were due to electrical failures
- 5% were due to the vehicle being exposed to another type of fire
- 3% were due to a car crash or rollover
(the remaining causes were not listed)
Looking at all the data, if you keep the vehicle well maintained, car fires are possible but not likely.
There are about 5.5 million reported crashes per year. (Up to 10 million more go unreported. “The majority of these unreported crashes involve only minor property damage and no significant personal injury,” according to NHTSA. If your car was totaled from fire or water submersion, you’d probably report it.)
If there are 174,000 (2015 number) car fires from which only 3% are caused by crashes, according to the National Fire Protection Association. That means roughly 5,220 crashes end in car fires or 0.0949% of all car crashes result in fire.
The National Fire Protection Association says from 2003 to 2007 there was an annual average of 480 fatalities from car fires. Only 3% of the fires were caused by collision or rollover but these accounted for 58% of the fatalities or 283 deaths. During that period total number fatalities from car crashes averaged 42,500 (the number was 35,092 in 2015). A car fire was a contributing factor but not necessarily primary cause of death in 0.66% of fatal crashes and only 0.0051% of all car crashes.
Realize the statistics don’t say if the fire caused the death or if the occupant had suffered other fatal injuries during the crash.
While full-out explosions are super rare because of the design of the engine and components, that’s not to say you shouldn’t get out of a burning car quickly. Cars will burn quite happily once they get going. Once the plastic and foam inside a car start burning, they’ll burn hot and intense for some time. The flame-retardant on these materials might slow the spread and offer a little time but they will ignite with enough exposure.
Car crashes where water submersion was the main factor make up less than 1% of traffic fatalities nationwide, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures.
Five states have the most submerged vehicles: Florida, California, Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Many people in those states feel it’s common enough to drive with a window punch and seat belt cutters.
But how common is it?
Gerald Dworkin, a professional Aquatics Safety and Water Rescue Consultant for Lifesaving Resources Inc, told the Orlando Sentinel he estimates some 1,200 to 1,500 vehicles wind up in the water in the United States every year.
Again there are about 5.5 million reported crashes per year. If there are 1,500 (high estimate) vehicles that end up submerged in water; that means 0.0273% of all car crashes result in vehicle submersion.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System says from 2004 to 2007 there was an annual average of 384 traffic fatalities in which accidental drowning was listed as one of the causes of death. During that period total number fatalities from car crashes averaged 42,500 (the number was 35,092 in 2015). Drowning was a contributing factor but not necessarily primary cause of death in 0.9% of fatal crashes and only 0.0069% of all car crashes.
This means it’s not necessarily that the occupant couldn’t free himself from the seat belt or car and therefore drowned. The occupant could have sustained a fatal injury or lost consciousness prior to entering the water.
Other Factors to Consider
In 2015 there were 35,092 fatalities from car crashes. That means of the roughly 5.5 million reported car crashes in the U.S. only 0.63% result in a fatality, assuming there’s only one fatality per crash. If a crash is severe enough for one fatality there was likely more than one fatality so that percentage could be less.
According to NHTSA, nearly half (48%) of those killed were unrestrained. (So wear your seat belt, you’ll have much better odds.)
Certainly any fatality is a tragedy and perhaps one day we’ll accomplish Zero Deaths and make every arrival a safe arrival, especially for our children.
What about children in car fires or drowning in cars?
How many of these two types of crashes involve children? It’s hard to say. We were unable to find any statistics that specified children involved in these types of car crashes.
During the years included in the vehicle submersion study, there were about 1,100 children fatally injured annually. This represents .02% of all crashes that involved child fatalities.
So first, your crash would have to be one of the .02% of car crashes that involve children. Then it would have to be one of the 0.0069% that involve a water fatality or the 0.0051% that involve fire fatalities.
The odds are extremely slim though certainly not impossible.
Protecting Our Children
When considering how to protect our children and with what car seat, we have to take into account risk factors, look at the odds and do our best to reduce the odds in the most common circumstances. For instance, most car crashes are frontal impact and most crashes occur at less than 30mph. So federal standards require crash testing car seats for frontal impacts at 30mph.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
What if We Find Our Self in one of these types of crashes?
The first key to survival is stay calm. Easier said than done.
As airline attendants say during their safety briefing, “If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” This goes for a car fire or vehicle submersion too. You have to be able to get yourself out before you can help your children.
If you are in a car fire, obviously get out fast.
If you are in a sinking car, the advice of experts, including Dworkin, is to roll down the window as quickly as possible as soon as you hit the water. Then unbuckle your seat belt and exit through the window. And if the window won’t open, figure out a way to break the glass. It is extremely difficult to open the door or window due to water pressure pushing in on them.
And getting a child out?
If you have a child in the car, according to Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht from the University of Manitoba, after you unbuckle and get a window open, you get the kids out by unbuckling them and pushing them out the window, before you get out of the car yourself. He advises to start with the oldest if you have more than one child in the car. The older children can help with the younger ones.
As for releasing the child in a car fire or submerged vehicle situation? The fastest way to release a child in either of these situations, no matter what type of child restraint is used, is by cutting the seat belt or harness straps of the child restraint.
If emergency personnel have any immediate challenge to removing a child (or an adult) they will cut the seat belt.
We want to know. Have you practiced getting your children out of their child restraint in less than 30 seconds with your eyes closed in preparation for a car fire or vehicle submersion? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
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