No, millions of cars don’t catch fire every year

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Marc UrbanoCar and driver

“We may have slightly overestimated the claimed percentage rate for fires given by AutoinsuranceEZ as a few readers have pointed out. Therefore, we have revised the text to clarify that the reported rate of fires is likely around 2-3% of all vehicles, not 5 as we originally estimated. However, since we cannot know the total number of hybrid vehicles compared to the ICE vehicles referenced in the study, we cannot make a more precise calculation.

Last month the New York Times published a story about electric vehicle safety and car fires that caught our attention here at the C/D Department of Shady Claims. Titled “Hurdle to Broad Adoption of EVs: The Misperception That They’re Unsafe,” it argues that electric cars catch fire less often than conventional internal combustion cars or hybrids. It reads, in part:

AutoInsuranceEZ studied the frequency of fires – all causes, including collisions – in automobiles in 2021. It found that hybrid vehicles, which have an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, had the most fires for 100,000 vehicles (3,475), while vehicles with just an internal combustion engine ranked second (1,530 per 100,000). All-electric vehicles had the least: 25 per 100,000. These findings are based on data from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

You don’t have to be a professional statistician to notice that these AutoInsuranceEZ numbers look a bit questionable. Because, EVs and hybrids aside, if 1530 conventional internal combustion cars (aka “most cars”) catch fire for every 100,000 vehicles, that would equate to millions of car fires each year – in 2020, there were approximately 270 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States. Imagine that: you certainly know someone whose car caught fire. Maybe your car caught fire. He could be on fire right now! “Oh, another car fire,” you would say as you pass the third fire on your morning commute.

Maybe they are comparing all the fires with a single year of new car sales? We’ll let you know if we sort this out.

Car and driver

To try to figure out where those numbers came from, we first contacted the National Transportation Safety Board, the purported source of the car fire statistics. And the NTSB spokesperson told us, “There is no NTSB database that tracks road vehicle fires. We don’t know what data AutoInsuranceEZ used for its research, but it’s not from ‘an NTSB database.” They suggested that the study authors may have confused the NTSB with NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So we contacted NHTSA.

And guess what? NHTSA also does not collect fire data in this way. The NHTSA – which we should call “the NHTSA”, but that sounds weird – collects accident data, but reports that only 5% of fires are accident related. They therefore rely on other sources of information, such as the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). Which, anyway, doesn’t categorize fires by vehicle powertrain type.

At this point, you might be wondering if your car is going to catch fire or what, so here’s what we found. According to the National Fire Protection Association, which gets its information from the NFIRS, passenger cars had an average of 117,400 fires per year between 2013 and 2017. And the Bureau of Transportation Statistics says there were 261,037,752 vehicles registered in the states. States in 2018 (excluding semi-trucks, motorcycles and buses). So do a little division, wear one. . . and this is equivalent to 0.04% of vehicles catching fire in a given year.

We’ve reached out to AutoinsuranceEZ (which seems to be a lead generator for auto insurance companies), and we’ll let you know if they ever get back to us, but in the meantime, here’s your good news for the day: you drive a Rivian, a Prius or a Cutlass Supreme donk, your car will probably never catch fire. But if you still want to wear Nomex underwear, we won’t stop you.

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