1990 NHTSA Study of Motor Vehicle Fires and FMVSS 301
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MOTOR VEHICLE FIRES IN TRAFFIC CRASHES
AND THE EFFECTS OF THE FUEL SYSTEM INTEGRITY STANDARD [FMVSS 301] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Office of Standards Evaluation
* * *
The Frequency of Fires in Motor Vehicle Crashes
* Motor vehicle fires in all police-reported traffic crashes are relatively
rare, occurring at the rate of approximately 3 fires for every 1,000 vehicles
involved in crashes.
* For all vehicles involved in fatal crashes, fires are considerably
more frequent, with about 26 fires per 1,000 vehicles in crashes – nearly
9 times the rate for all crashes.
* For each of the 3 classes of vehicles of primary interest in this study
– passenger cars, light trucks, and school buses, the fire rate and estimated
number of fire crashes annually are:
Fires per 1,000 Vehicle Crashes
Total Number of Fires Annually
* For Injury crashes involving passenger cars or light trucks, the fire
rate is higher at 7 to 8 fires 1,000 crashes.
* Fire in fatal collisions of passenger cars has increased significantly
over the last several years, from 20 per 1,000 crashes in 1975 to 28 per
1,000 crashes 1988. A primary reason for this increase is believed to
be an increasing proportion of older vehicles in the car population. Older
vehicles are more likely to experience fire, given a crash. The fire rate
was not found to be related to car size, as defined by vehicle curb weight.
Therefore, the trend to smaller cars over the last several years does
not appear to be a factor in the increased rate of fires in fatal passenger
Casualties in Fire Crashes
* From 1975 to 1988, over 1,600 people per year died in vehicles involved
in fire crashes. The number of fire-related fatalities has increased over
the 14-year period, from 1,300 in 1975 to over 1,800 in 1988, due primarily
to the increase in fire rate for passenger cars.
* Slightly more than 4 percent of all occupant fatalities occur in fire
crashes. For passenger cars, the rate is just under 4 percent, and for
light trucks, the rate is 5 percent.
* Over the same period, total estimated occupant casualties in fire crashes
involving cars and light trucks, annually, are:
Number of Casualties
* The available sample of school bus fires was insufficient for estimating
occupant casualties in fire crashes.
The Effectiveness of FMVSS 301
* It is estimated that FMVSS 301 has reduced fires in all passenger car
crashes by 14 percent. This translates to 3,900 fewer fires annually,
once the entire car fleet has been modified in accordance with the Standard’s
requirements. Presently, about 85 percent of the car fleet contain these
* Some evidence exists that fire rates in injury crashes may be lower
for post-standard vehicles, but the information is insufficient for definitive
* In fatal passenger car crashes, there was no significant reduction
in the fire rate for vehicles produced after the Standard took effect.
Fire is associated with the more severe impact crashes which also tend
to be fatal crashes.
* No significant reduction in crash fires was found for post-standard
light trucks, both for all police-reported crashes, and fatal crashes
alone. While data were insufficient for analysis of fire rates in injury
crashes, the finding of no fire reduction for all crashes or for fatal
crashes implies that none would be found for injury crashes as well.
* Data were insufficient to develop reliable estimates of the effect
of FMVSS 301 for school buses.