The Shocking Risk Of Post-Crash Car Fires: Michael Hastings & FMVSS 302

Journalist Michael Hastings, perhaps best known for a Rolling Stone investigative feature that led to the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, died today in a car accident. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The vehicle crossed a median, struck a tree and burst into flames in the Hancock Park area, LAPD Officer Christopher No said. The driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

A witness described the accident to KTLA News: "I was just coming northbound on Highland and I seen a car, like, going really fast and all of a sudden I seen it jackknife," Luis Cortez said. "I just seen parts fly everywhere, and I slammed on my brakes and stopped and tried to call 911.”

Without jumping to too many conclusions, it seems from the description and the fire that Hastings was driving well in excess of the speed limit. We all jump to the immediate conclusion he was drunk or high, but medical conditions and vehicle defects frequently cause cars to careen out of control, too. If he was abusing alcohol or prescription drugs or something else, it’s another reminder of how America has an unhealthy connection between a “car culture” and a “substance abuse culture” that magnifies the problems of both. It’s that toxic culture that creates absurd and tragic situations like someone being served 23 alcoholic beverages at an Applebee’s in the course of two hours, leading to a drunk driving accident that left a little girl with catastrophic injuries.

But there’s another question lurking here, too: just how fast do you have to go in a car to have it “burst into flames” when it hits a tree?

This isn’t Hollywood, cars don’t just explode when they’re in an accident - or at least they shouldn’t. As I discussed just two weeks ago in a post on the dispute between Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) over the NHTSA’s demand Chrysler recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty (because they’re prone to catch fire in rear-impact collisions), there are federal standards that provide the minimum standards for vehicle crashworthiness, with tests for a variety of types of collisions performed.

The two relevant standards here are Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 301, "Fuel system integrity,” and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 302, "Flammability of interior materials.” These standards were introduced in 1972, and they’ve been updated since then, but, as several safety researchers noted in “Improving Survivability in Motor Vehicle Fires,” that, while FMVSS 301 has done much to prevent the reoccurance of the Ford Pinto scandal, FMVSS 302 - developed in the 1960s with the intent of addressing cigarette smoldering ignition - is worthless:

The requirements of this Standard are intended to strengthen and to protect the vehicle’s fuel system, so that, in a crash event, the chances of fuel leakage, and, consequently, the chances of fire and of occupant injury, will be reduced. Because of the highly flammable properties of gasoline and the fact that gasoline was the predominant fire load when the standards were issued, it was an obvious first choice as the source of combustible material in motor vehicle crash fires. FMVSS 301 has reduced the risk of impact-induced fires due to fuel tank rupture, despite the increase in the numbers of automobiles in use. However, the overall vehicle fire death rate has remained relatively constant over the past few decades, at least partially because of a ten fold increase in the amount of combustible materials (especially plastics) used for interior and exterior applications.

Why is that the case? Because the FMVSS 302 standards don’t really measure how a given substance or structure reacts after a collision, they measure how flammable the material is when exposed to flame. That makes people safer from, say, dropping a cigarette in their car, but it doesn’t make them safer when a fire is started by a collision, as most vehicle fires are started.

Worse, as the researchers found, more than two-thirds of the “combustible plastics, fabric, and foam surfaces” in a car aren’t tested at all, because they’re not covered by the regulation, and the testing does not account at all for issues like radiant heat or how fire actually spreads after collisions. Thus, testing showed that “Once flames penetrate the passenger compartment they spread several times faster than allowed by FMVSS 302, resulting in occupant death in 1-3 minutes.”

1-3 minutes is a lot of time if you’re awake, alert, mobile, and aware of the danger. It’s no time at all if you were just in a car accident, disoriented, injured, and still strapped in or trapped by the bent steel, and it’s a death sentence if you were unconscious.

Little wonder groups like the National Fire Protection Association despise FMVSS 302, and in their NFPA 556 (“Guide on Methods for Evaluating Fire Hazard to Occupants of Passenger Road Vehicles”) deemed it useless. NFPA members routinely say at their annual meetings that manufacturers should not even attempt to meet it, because everything will pass, and it will mislead them into believing the car is safe.

So, while I’ll leave to others to memorialize and learn from Michael Hastings’ life and tragically early death, there is one part I hope doesn’t get lost:cars really can burst into flames, and neither the government nor the car companies are doing much about it.


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