Cars in movies seem to explode into a raging ball of flames with far greater frequency than they do in real life, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Even if you just smell burning wires or see smoke, don't assume that flames aren't close behind.
First and foremost, stay calm and safely pull over to the shoulder, then turn off the ignition, get out quickly and call 911. There are also plenty of things you should not do — starting with panic. Follow the link below for our full list of do's and don'ts to avoid getting burned.
- Stay calm. Signal to get off the road.
- If you smell burning wires or smoke, or even if your temperature gauge is redlined, drive directly onto the shoulder and turn off the ignition. You don't need to see flames in order to make this decision.
- If you are stuck in a middle lane and cannot pull to the shoulder, turn on your hazard lights, stop the car where it is and turn off the ignition. DO NOT concern yourself with the rest of the traffic — they'll get out of the way when they see the smoke and flames.
- Get out of the car quickly, but be cautious. You don't want to get burned, but you don't want to be struck by another vehicle while exiting yours.
- If you are stuck in traffic, be sure to warn others around you about the danger. They may need to abandon their cars too.
- Leave everything in the car. Everything.
- Get as far from the burning car as you can. If the car explodes, you don't want to be anywhere close.
- Call 911.
- If the fire is confined to the interior of the car (i.e. seat upholstery, carpet), and it has not spread uncontrollably, you could consider putting out the fire yourself if you have an extinguisher in your trunk and know how to use it. But do this only if the fire is small and very manageable. Gauge your safety first.
- Do not panic. Panic is at the root of bad decision-making.
- Do not roll the windows down and drive faster in hopes that the wind will put the fire out. Instead, the air and wind can fuel the fire and make it spread faster.
- Do not swerve off the road without checking to make sure you're clear to do so. A fire is bad. A fire combined with a collision could be much worse.
- Do not scramble for your valuables. The only thing that is important at this moment is your safety. A fire can engulf the car in a matter of seconds, especially if there is an oil or fuel leak.
- If smoke and flames are coming out from under the hood, do not open it. A sudden influx of air to the engine compartment can create a fireball effect that can engulf the vehicle (and anyone around it) almost instantly.
- Do not assume the fire is out just because you can't see it anymore.
- Do not try to extinguish the fire with nearby water (from a hose, pond, etc.). This is highly ineffective and unsafe.
- Do not linger around the car. Get away, and keep others away. Wait for emergency personnel.
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