Vehicle fire data have some experts fuming

By PAUL WENSKE

Kansas City Star, 12-11-05

Some safety experts are increasingly concerned that many vehicle fires are going unreported to government agencies.

AAA in October drew attention to the danger of car fires by reporting that 520 persons died in highway vehicle fires in 2004 ” more than the number who died in apartment fires. The automobile association said there were more than 266,500 vehicle fires, resulting in 1,300 injuries and nearly $1 billion in property damage.

But Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, said AAA's fire figures were just the tip of the iceberg.

An estimated 500 to 1,000 fatal accidents involving fires never get reported as fire-related deaths, said Kennerly Digges, president of the Motor Vehicle Fire Research Institute, an independent nonprofit group based in Charlottesville, Va., specializing in automobile fire safety research.

Experts agree that automakers are building safer vehicles. But safety experts think that improved reporting methods could provide an early warning system for potential hazards and might save lives.

Federal officials, however, insist the current system is adequate and doesn't need upgrading.

"We don't have any evidence at this point that we are missing anything," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Tyson said officials have 'excellent tools' to identify vehicle fires. They include the traffic safety agency's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, as well as the National Fire Incident Reporting System.

Automakers also think the nation's reporting system does a good job. Laws since 2002 require automakers to alert the government to serious complaints, including rollovers and fires, that can lead to recalls. In September, Ford recalled cruise control switches on 3.8 million 1994-2002 Ford pickups and SUVs that can overheat.

But critics think the system can be made better by digging deeper into the causes of vehicle fires. They say the government's two main databases suffer from serious information gaps and miss many non-crash fires.

Some experts say the Fatality Analysis Reporting System database can miss incidents because it was designed only to collect data on fatal accidents on public highways. To be counted, a car must be "in transport” in other words: moving. Cars catching fire in driveways, along the shoulders of roads or in garages weren't always counted.

Many problems stem simply from a failure to report fires correctly, said James Fell, research director at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. Fell said as many as half of all states appeared to underreport car fire deaths, often by simply failing to include death certificates with police reports.

"If the police don't list a fire in their report, the death doesn't get reported (as a fire-related death)," Fell said.

Missouri and Kansas were not among those states that underreport, according to his data.

Experts said the National Fire Incident Reporting System also had information gaps. The system collects data from fire departments nationwide, allowing fire investigators to track trends in the numbers and types of car fires.

But the reporting codes used by firefighters to report vehicle fires are the same ones used for fires in apartment complexes, homes and even skyscrapers. A coding system specifically for car fires doesn't exist. Fires that start in cars but spread to houses, where they sometimes cause deaths, are reported as structural fires.

A local case illustrates just how easy it is for a car fire to go unreported.

Pam Tarr said her parents' 2001 Buick LeSabre filled with smoke last year as they were driving near Kansas City. After pulling over, flames shot from the floor between the front and back seats. Tarr's father died of a heart attack after exiting the vehicle.

The fire department reported the fire but not the cause, and did not list the death as fire-related. Apparently, in part because the car was not moving, the fire and death do not appear in the National Transportation Safety Administration's database.

Kevin Stanley, the family's attorney, said the lack of reporting shows that there "should be a priority to find what causes car fires. That isn't done now."