Dubai: The death of Indian physician Dr John Marshall after his car went up in flames near the World Trade Centre roundabout in Dubai on November 26 has raised several questions about the causes of such vehicular fires and the possibility of escape for those trapped inside.
According to initial reports by Dubai Police, the doctor who was driving the car lost control of the vehicle, which overturned and caught fire, following which he was trapped inside and could not be rescued. The doctor’s family later said he might have suffered a blackout before the incident occurred.
Central Locking System
While police investigations continue, auto experts, who spoke to Gulf News on such incidents in general, said there are many factors that contribute to car fires which are avoidable. Equally important, they recommended the disabling of a car’s automatic Central Locking System (CLS), which prevents the driver from getting out or being pulled out of a burning car.
On November 26, firefighters reached the scene of the accident in around six minutes but the doctor could not be saved as he was trapped inside the car, police had earlier said.
Experts said they could not comment on the specifics of the accident involving Dr Marshall. Generally speaking, they said the CLS, which is a power-operated locking system connected to the vehicle’s alarm system, is deemed important as it ensures the occupants’ safety. But it’s in the event of an emergency that there can be concerns.
Gordon Ferguson, General Manager at AAA Service Centre, said, “I personally recommend the disarming of the CLS because even if the driver cannot immediately unlock the door from inside during an emergency, someone else can from the outside. In any case, we use child locks on the rear doors for the safety of the children. So why have an additional locking system?”
Suresh Babu, independent car specialist at X BM Garage, agrees. “It is advisable to deactivate the CLS option. It is just a matter of programming and one can get it disabled with the help of the dealer or a recognised auto garage.”
Besides road accidents resulting in the death or injury of motorists trapped behind locked doors, Babu quoted a recent instance in which a resident suffered a heart attack while reversing his car, but could not be saved as he was not in a position to unlock the door and neither could bystanders outside as they had no access. “By the time help arrived and the windows were smashed, it was too late.”
Reasons for car fires
Going into the reasons for car fires, the auto experts said they could range from fuel leakages and failure of electrical systems to unauthorised modifications and high impact collisions.
According to Ferguson, “Vehicles bursting into flames is not common. In my 38 years of fixing cars in the country, I have come across just a couple of instances. But when and if they happen, it means something is terribly wrong, whether it’s a fuel leak, brake fluid leak or a bad connection in the battery.”
As Babu explained, “If there is a fuel leak and it starts dripping on to a hot surface or exhaust, it will surely lead to a fire. So one should not take a continuing smell of petrol inside or around the car lightly. A bad or old wiring system can also set off sparks. This may not necessarily be restricted to the area beneath the hood. It could be anywhere in the car. One should also be careful about inflammable fluids like power steering fluid, brake fluid and engine coolants.”
The experts said most snags can be detected during servicing, which is why it is essential to go in for regular maintenance. “Depending on the car and the manufacturer’s requirements, the vehicle must be serviced every 5,000 or 10,000-km that it covers,” said Ferguson.
“Regular inspections are like a general health check,” said Babu.
Added to these factors is the danger of unauthorised modifications to upgrade engines, gear boxes etc, which can also lead to problems. The experts said residents sometimes go in for these changes for off-road racing and that’s not a good thing.
Car crashes too can lead to a fire if there is damage to the engine, battery or gas tank due to high impact. “When there is a collision, there is an option in the battery system to disconnect power. This is automatically done in most modern cars to avoid a fire,” said Babu.
Keeping fire extinguishers inside the car and knowing how to use them is also a safety requirement, the experts reminded, adding that it is always better to be safe than sorry.