My car is on fire. What now?

Imagine you are test-driving a $376,000 Lamborghini Aventador.

You are zooming down the highway, enjoying the thrill of this rare supercar, when you notice smoke and flames. You pull over, get out of the car and watch helplessly as it burns to the ground. This is exactly what happened to an unlucky test driver in California.

Thank goodness you don't drive a Lamborghini.

But do you drive a Jeep? A BMW? A Toyota? Car fires are more frequent than you might imagine, and there are investigations opened almost monthly by safety regulators seeking their cause. For example:

  • Power window switches in 1.4 million late-model Toyota cars and SUVs may be the culprit behind 161 reported fires. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an "engineering analysis," a precursor to a safety recall.
  • Gas-tank design is the issue behind a NHTSA probe into the safety of 5.1 million Jeep Grand Cherokees.
  • A faulty water-pump circuit board prompted a recall of thousands of late-model BMWs last year.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2010 there were 215,500 vehicle fires in the U.S., or one vehicle fire every 146 seconds. Those fires killed 310 people, injured almost 1,600 others and resulted in $1.4 billion in property damage, the group says.

Cars burn for many reasons: accidents, faulty parts, even arson. But just because you are not to blame for a fire doesn't mean your insurance company will replace your smoking ruin.

The fire that isn't your fault

Almost half of vehicle fires are caused by mechanical failure or malfunction, the NFPA says. That includes leaks, faulty brakes, worn-out parts and even backfires. Electrical problems contributed to 23 percent of fires. While you might think that most fires start around the gas tanks and fuel lines, just 2 percent of fires do.

If you have a very basic policy that offers only liability coverage, you are not insured against fire even if a defect caused the problem.

"Liability insurance only covers the damage that a driver causes to other people and their property," says Andrew Schrage of the personal finance website Money Crashers. "Therefore, if you have a car that burns out due to a defect, you would need to pursue the manufacturer in court."

Individuals will find that process time-consuming and expensive. Insurance companies, on the other hand, know it well.

"If you have comprehensive coverage, you can make a claim against your insurance company," says attorney Tom Simeone of Simeone & Miller in Washington, D.C. "An insurance claim will be quicker, less expensive and less burdensome than pursuing a product liability case. Your insurance company can, in turn, file a subrogation action against the automaker for the amount it pays you."

It's not unheard of for an insurance company to go after an automaker. For example, State Farm sued Ford numerous times over defective ignition switches that resulted in car fires and payouts to State Farm customers. State Farm said it had paid out more than $440,000 involving 80 cars in California alone.

The fire that is your fault

Poor maintenance or improperly installed aftermarket equipment similarly could leave you at risk even if you carry comprehensive coverage.

For instance, your insurance company may be reluctant to pay if you have not disclosed your modifications ahead of time, says consumer analyst Penny Gusner. (See "When your hybrid burns down your house.")

The insurer also may refuse to pay if you have failed to exercise reasonable care, as one holiday-minded driver found out after a Christmas wreath caught fire.

But most drivers will simply have to pay their deductibles and get on with life. Typically, comprehensive insurance claims don't affect your rates unless you have made several of them. Collision claims are more likely to affect your rates.

Some fire claims might be paid under collision, Gusner says, "if your car caught fire after an accident, such as a rollover. But in most cases it is comprehensive that protects against fires."

Rollovers and collisions were blamed in only 3 percent of fires, the NFPA says.

What about arson?

In 2010, roughly 14,000 car fires were intentionally set, according to the NFPA, resulting in $90 million in damage.

People burn cars for a number of reasons. They might be covering up a crime, destroying a joy ride or, in many cases, trying to get out of a car loan they can no longer afford (a practice known in the insurance industry as an "owner give-up").

If you are the victim of a legitimate case of arson, you are covered under comprehensive coverage if you have it, minus your deductible. If the arsonist turns out to be your angry spouse, though, you will have to take it up in divorce court. Most insurers will not cover intentional damage caused by a family member, Gusner says.

What to do if your car is on fire

The NFPA and the AAA suggest the following if you find yourself in a burning car:

  • Stop. Get off the road as soon as safely possible and turn off the ignition. Turning off the ignition stops the flow of gasoline.
  • Get out. When you have safely exited the vehicle, move at least 100 feet away. Exploding cars are mainly the stuff of movies, but a burning car throws off toxic fumes.
  • Call 911. Let the professionals handle the fire. Do not attempt to extinguish it yourself.

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