Cape Town - A long time ago, I was test-riding a brand-new superbike at Killarney racetrack when it caught fire.
Luckily, I was able to ride into the workshop of a car-builder at the circuit, yelling at the top of my (not inconsiderable) voice for a fire extinguisher; the blaze was out in seconds and the damage to the bike was limited to a wrecked slave cylinder and a warped rear brake disc.
But even if I had been out on the open road, I would have been able to stop the bike and simply get off, with little or no danger to myself.
That incident has been brought back to mind recently by the more than 40 cases of Ford Kuga’s self-igniting and, more recently, by the case of a car in KwaZulu-Natal that burst into flames after being involved in a collision.
So what do you do if you find yourself in a car that’s on fire?
Road safety organisation Arrive Alive has the following advice:
Keep as calm as you can. Cars burn fast, and toxic fumes build up quickly inside what is in effect a sealed box, so you don’t have a lot of time.
Indicate, and pull off to the side of the road, so everybody can get out.
Stop as quickly as you can; even slow movement will force fresh air through the grille and feed the fire.
Turn off the ignition to switch off the electrical system and, specifically, to kill the fuel pump.
Pull up the handbrake or move the gear lever to Park, so the car won’t roll away while you're getting out.
Help everybody out of the car, but don’t hang around in the danger zone retrieving personal belongings - phones can be replaced.
Don’t open either the bonnet or the boot - the sudden rush of fresh air could cause a big flare-up right in your face.
Even if it’s a small fire, be very careful about trying to put it out yourself, and make sure you approach the car from upwind, so the smoke is blowing away from you. The biggest danger in a fire isn’t getting burnt - it’s smoke inhalation.
An emergency is not the time to be reading the instructions on your fire extinguisher; read them this evening, when you move it from the boot to somewhere accessible inside the car.
If the fire is small and inside the car, use your extinguisher - from outside.
If there's smoke coming from under the bonnet, pop the release but don’t lift the bonnet - that could turn a little fire into a big one, instantly. Stand a little back from the car and spray through the gap.
If the fire is a big one or at the back near the fuel tank, your chances of putting it out safely are slim. Rather move back to a safe distance - at least 30 metres - and call for help.
Keep everybody together, well away from the fire and off the road - you don’t want anybody to get knocked down by drivers rubber-necking at your burning car and not looking where they’re going.
Even worse - a fire as the result of a crash:
First and most important: as soon as the car stops moving, unlock the doors. Even if you can’t open them, releasing the latches will make it easier for bystanders or rescue personnel to pry them open from outside.
Turn off the ignition.
Undo your seatbelt, before the latch melts and gets stuck; if it’s already too hot to touch, pull some of your shirt out and use that to protect your fingers as you push the latch in.
If the buckle won't release, push the shoulder strap over your head and try to wriggle out from under the lap strap.
Kick out a window. If you can’t open your door, put your back against it and kick out the opposite side window.
Getting a window open will let smoke out of the car and give you an escape route - even if you have to slither out backwards.
Tools for Escaping from a Vehicle on Fire
Crashes often jam seatbelt latches and door locks, making it difficult or impossible to get out of the car.
Rescue personnel recommend that you keep a Life Hammer (a small plastic hammer with steel tips that will shatter a car window with one sharp blow) clipped to the dashboard or centre console of your car and a ResQMe (a tiny handheld cutter that’ll slice through a seatbelt in one stroke) on your car’s keyring.
Like the fire extinguisher clipped to the side of the passenger footwell, they’re a nuisance and a waste of space - until the day you need them.