Risk of noncrash fires drops after recalls

August 16, 2018

When a vehicle not involved in a crash catches fire, oftentimes an electrical issue or fuel system defect is to blame. When things go awry, the results can be costly in terms of property damage and potential injuries, so it is crucial that vehicle owners heed recall notices and service bulletins and get repairs done as soon as possible.

For 2017 through Aug. 8, 2018, there have been 62 noncrash fire-related recalls affecting 6.8 million vehicles, HLDI estimates. Recalls span manufacturers and a range of issues, from incorrectly installed fuel-line hoses to faulty alternators.

Vehicles with known fire-related defects have a significantly higher risk of noncrash fire insurance losses, compared with vehicles without such defects, prior HLDI analyses indicate. After a recall is issued, the risk decreases but remains higher than for vehicles without any fire-safety recalls.

In an updated report, HLDI found that the frequency of noncrash fire claims for 2007–17 model passenger vehicles recalled for a fire-related defect was 14 percent higher than the frequency of claims for vehicles without a recall. Claim frequency is expressed in claims per 10,000 insured vehicle years for noncrash fire recalls. An insured vehicle year is one vehicle insured for one year or two vehicles insured for six months each.

For motorcycles, the frequency of noncrash fire claims was 18 percent higher than for comparable models without noncrash fire recalls.

Insurance losses for noncrash fire damage are covered under comprehensive insurance, which pays for vehicle theft, physical damage due to animal strikes and noncrash-related reasons.

The frequency of noncrash fire claims for passenger vehicles subsequently recalled was 19 percent higher, compared with nonrecalled models. Post-recall, the difference in noncrash fire claim frequency narrowed to 11 percent.

For motorcycles, the frequency of claims was 32 percent higher before being recalled, compared with motorcycles not subject to a fire recall. After being recalled, the frequency of claims fell to 15 percent.

"Our work shows that recalls reduce the risk of a noncrash fire, but they don't eliminate the risk. Much risk remains because not all recalled vehicles are repaired," says Matt Moore, HLDI senior vice president.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that a quarter of recalled vehicles don't get fixed.

HLDI has been working with the agency to help identify vehicles that may have fire-related defects and need to be recalled. NHTSA, for example, in 2017 requested noncrash fire claims data from HLDI on the 2008–09 Smart ForTwo amid consumer reports of engine compartment fires while driving or shortly after turning off the ignition.

A subsequent HLDI analysis of 2008–09 Smart ForTwo models found a sharply higher frequency of claims for noncrash fires for the microcar than other comparable vehicles.

NHTSA's investigation led to Mercedes-Benz in May issuing a recall for the 2008–09 ForTwo, affecting 42,781 vehicles. NHTSA says the rear insulation mat in the ForTwo's engine compartment may deform, deteriorate, and loosen over time, allowing the mat to contact hot exhaust system components.

Consumers can check for recalls by entering the 17-digit vehicle identification number in NHTSA's lookup tool. When buying a used vehicle, it also is a good idea to notify the manufacturer, so the company can make sure the new owner receives future recall notices.

Effect of fire-related defects on passenger vehicle and motorcycle noncrash fire claim frequencies, before and after recalls

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