Within five minutes of parking his Pontiac Grand Prix, Todd's car, pictured at right, lit up a suburban Virginia roadside in roaring orange flames as the car turned to charred metal, melted plastic and burned rubber.
He's not alone. Last year there were 266,000 car fires reported in the U.S. The fires killed 520 people and the problem seems to be increasing.
Even worse, some victims of similar fires find themselves losing their insurance and even being prosecuted for arson.
Todd's Pontiac had a bumper to bumper General Motors warranty and a full insurance policy in force. Neither helped.
"Pontiac laughed when I called," he said. "The GM insurance underwriter called me an idiot and hung up."
What is worse, his insurance company tried to convince the local prosecutor to charge Todd with arson "even though their investigator could not find anything," he told ConsumerAffairs.com.
The fire marshal said the blaze originated in the engine compartment and the Pontiac probably erupted into flames by itself.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received dozens of complaints from consumers with Pontiacs similar to Todd's reporting unexplained engine compartment fires. Todd sent his own complaint to NHTSA.
The agency responded with a note that said in part, "Thank you for contacting the U.S. Department of Transportation's Vehicle Safety Hotline Information Center."
That is about all NHTSA has said to Todd except, "We hope that you find this information helpful."
Todd thinks there've been too many Pontiac Grand Prix GM 3800 Series engine fires, and he may be correct. Internet chat rooms are filled with complaints, as is the NHTSA site where there are dozens of complaints similar to Todd's.
Rebecca from Enterprise, Alabama, had a similar experience.
"In December 2000, I purchased a new 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix. Never had any problems with this car. It was my dream car. On March 23, 2006 it caught fire in the engine compartment and burned," she told ConsumerAffairs.com.
"GM doesn't want to take responsibility. I have since found out that there have been numerous Grand Prix Pontiacs ranging from 1999 through 2002 that have caught fire in the engine compartment and burned this year," Rebecca said.
There has been one major recall involving car fires and one NHTSA investigation is still underway, but neither involves the Pontiac Grand Prix, despite all the complaints about the car.
Federal regulators at NHTSA are currently investigating complaints that some Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute SUVs have inexplicably caught fire. The investigation involves more than 600,000 SUVs from the 2001-2003 model years. NHTSA has received eight complaints of engine fires around the antilock braking system's electronic control module.
Earlier this year, NHTSA ordered the recall of 6.7 millon Ford vehicles because federal investigators concluded that the cruise control switch might cause a potentially devastating fire that could spread throughout the engine compartment and set the vehicle ablaze.
Most vehicle fires like the ones in the Pontiac Grand Prix, according to the experts, are not caused by engineering defects or collisions but by poor maintenance.
"The risk of a car or vehicle fire is even greater than the risk of an apartment fire. More people die in vehicle fires than in apartment fires each year in the United States," said AAA President Robert Darblenet.
At least six flammable fluids under a car's hood can leak onto hot surfaces and start a fire so AAA suggests fluid lines, hoses, caps and filters be inspected and maintained to prevent leaks.
The experts agree that automakers are building safer vehicles. But there are some critics who claim that the reporting system can be made better by digging deeper into the causes of vehicle fires.
At NHTSA, federal officials say things are working just fine.
"We don't have any evidence at this point that we are missing anything," said NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson.
Not Just Pontiacs
Despite NHTSA's sanguine view, there's no shortage of complaints about car fires, and in many cases consumers insist they were up to date on the maintenance of their vehicle. Many of the fires involve cars that had been parked for hours or even days.
In Long Beach, New York, Rory's 2003 BMW 330ci with 49,000 miles spontaneously caught fire at 11:35am September 13th, he told us.
"I had not driven the car in two days," Rory said. "I was getting ready to leave my house when I heard my car alarm going off. As I approached the vehicle I could see smoke inside the car. I quickly tried to unlock the doors with my keyless entry which didn't work at this point."
The fire marshal concluded that fire started under the dashboard.
"Basically the car caught itself on fire," Rory told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I've contacted BMW corporate and have heard nothing as to what is going to happen next." he said.
John in Howell Michigan lost his 1999 Audi after a fire caused by a headlight switch. In John's case, the headlight switch was part of an Audi recall but John said he did not receive the notice.
When Pigs Fly
In what has to be one of the oddest events reported to ConsumerAffairs.com, Lisa was driving with her family through Crockett, Virginia "when another vehicle coming in the opposite direction hit a 800-pound hog in the road sending it airborne. The hog hit the hood of our van deploying our airbags and destroying the front of our van."
The van "ignited into flames ... in a matter of a couple minutes it was totally gutted. We are not sure what caused the fire and no one seems to know either," Lisa told us.
The person who owned the hog may not be held responsible but that is still under investigation by the Crockett police, she said.
What You Can Do
As the many complaints demonstrate, cars can and do catch fire, both when they're running and when they're parked. Here's what you can do if it happens to you:
• If possible, pull to the side of the road and turn off the ignition. Pulling to the side makes it possible for everyone to get out of the vehicle safely. Turn off the ignition to shut off the electric current and stop the flow of gasoline. Put the vehicle in park or set the emergency brake; you don't want the vehicle to move after your leave it.
• Do not open the hood because more oxygen can make the fire larger and expose you to a sudden flare-up.
• Make sure everyone gets out of the vehicle, but do not waste time and increase your risk by removing personal belongings. Move at least 100 feet away. Keep traffic in mind and keep everyone together. There is not only danger from the fire, but also from other vehicles moving in the area.
• Call 911. Firefighters are trained to combat vehicle fires. Never return to the vehicle to attempt to fight the fire yourself. Vehicle fires can be tricky, even for firefighters. Pressurized components can burst or explode, spilling or spraying highly flammable liquids, or eject projectiles than can cause serious injuries.
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