AAA and the National Fire Protection Association will issue a warning tomorrow about car fires, ABC News has learned. Last year, 266,000 car fires resulted in 520 deaths, the organizations say.
"It was a horrible explosion," said car fire victim Bob Aymar, who, in less than a minute, suffered third degree burns on his face, hand and arm. He was sprayed by a gasoline fireball during a violent traffic accident on a Southern California freeway.
"The Bronco behind me was hit so hard that it ruptured the gas tank," said Aymar, who, after seven surgeries, was finally able to play the piano again.
He is just one of more than 1,300 car fire victims every year. According to the NFPA, cars catch fire on American highways once every two minutes.
"The risk of a car or vehicle fire is even greater than the risk of an apartment fire. More people die in vehicle fires than in apartment fires each year in the United States," said AAA President Robert Darblenet.
Poor Car Maintenance a Leading Factor
Surprisingly, 75 percent of those car fires are caused not by an accident, but by bad maintenance.
Twenty years ago, Mary Alonso, who was a student at the time, couldn't afford routine car maintenance.
"I never took care of my car," she said. "Never did oil changes or maintenance or anything."
One day while driving, she says, the muffler erupted in flames, leaving Alonso with burns over 30 percent of her body.
"Take care of your car now, so you won't have to pay the price later like I did," she said.
At least six flammable fluids under a car's hood can leak onto hot surfaces and start a fire. So AAA suggests fluid lines, hoses, caps and filters be inspected and maintained to prevent leaks.
If the car catches fire, experts say, most injuries and deaths can be prevented by moving 100 feet away.
Firefighters advise never opening the hood to fight the inferno yourself because it only feeds oxygen to the flames, making a car fire even more dangerous.
ABC News' Jim Avila filed this report for "World News Tonight."
In the event of a car fire, Fire Chief Otto Drozd of the Hialeah, Fla., fire department recommends the following:
STOP - If possible, pull to the side of the road and turn off the ignition. Pulling to the side makes it possible for everyone to get out of the vehicle safely. Turn off the ignition to shut off the electric current and stop the flow of gasoline. Put the vehicle in park or set the emergency brake; you don't want the vehicle to move after your leave it. Do not open the hood because more oxygen can make the fire larger and exposes you to a sudden flare-up.
GET OUT - Make sure everyone gets out of the vehicle, but do not waste time and increase risk by removing personal belongings. Then move at least 100 feet away. Keep traffic in mind and keep everyone together. There is not only danger from the fire, but also from other vehicles moving in the area.
CALL FOR HELP - Call 911 or the emergency number for your local fire department. Firefighters are specially trained to combat vehicle fires. Never return to the vehicle to attempt to fight the fire yourself. Vehicle fires can be tricky, even for firefighters. Pressurized components can burst or explode, spilling or spraying highly flammable liquids, or eject projectiles than can cause serious injuries.
To reduce the risk of a vehicle fire, AAA makes these recommendations:
Have your vehicles inspected at least annually by a trained, professional technician. As a public service, AAA inspects and approves thousands of repair facilities in the U.S. and Canada as part of the AAA Approved Auto Repair program. Names and locations of AAA-approved repair businesses can be found at www.aaa.com.
Watch for fluid leaks under vehicles, cracked or blistered hoses, or wiring that is loose, has exposed metal or has cracked insulation. Have any of these conditions inspected and repaired as soon as possible.
Be alert to changes in the way your vehicle sounds when running, or to a visible plume of exhaust coming from the tailpipe. A louder than usual exhaust tone, smoke coming from the tailpipe or a backfiring exhaust could mean problems or damage to the high-temperature exhaust and emission control system on the vehicle. Have vehicles inspected and repaired as soon as possible if exhaust or emission control problems are suspected.
Drive according to posted speed limits and other traffic rules. Remain alert to changing road conditions at all times.
Source: AAA and NFPA Press Release