As the mercury soars, your car also feels the heat

In between all the madness surrounding the elections, news reports of two separate cars catching fire in Delhi grabbed headlines in the last few days.

Last Wednesday, a Delhi based businessman tragically lost his life when he was burnt inside his Toyota Etios diesel car that mysteriously caught fire. Before the smoke from that incident could dissipate, another car–this time an Audi Q7– was burnt in south Delhi. Fortunately, it did not lead to loss of life as its owner was away but another Maruti 800 parked next to it also became an unintentional victim.

These were not the only instances of fire and at least 4-5 cars have met the same fate in this year so far. And it raises some very obvious questions . Why is it that the humble four wheeler all decked up in steel and aluminium from the outside, suddenly wilts and implodes, often unprovoked? And how can you save your car from such a mishap?

To the lay man, the two most obvious causes of a car catching fire is an accident or a leaking fuel/LPG/CNG tank. But as these recent cases show, very few cars actually go ablaze after an accident or due to a fuel leakage. On the contrary, the main culprit is ignorance, shoddy maintenance of the vehicles and ill informed alterations with its basic design.

A modern day car is a sum total of over 20,000 big and small components making it one of the most complex machines of everyday use. Each of these are conjoined in such a way that tampering any of these could lead to a short circuit with dramatic consequences. Further, as in the case in all other machines, every car needs a requisite amount of maintenance and care.

It is in these two aspects that users in general and those in India in particular are negligent. It is not very difficult to find cars being altered to drastic proportions. Equally easy it is to find cars that are long past their sell by date or have not been to a mechanic for well over a year, still plying on the roads.

Both these cases present a recipe for disaster.

“Very often we find customers altering their cars even when we advise them against it,” says Arif, the owner of a garage in Karol Bagh, who has been in the business for well over 2 decades. “Generally when a car is over 5 years old, people do not opt for timely maintenance schedule.

They merely wait for a part to give way and then come to us for repair. In the long run it costs them more money but they do not realise it.”

In the more mature markets, there are a lots of disincentives like warranty lapses to ward of unnecessary alterations. Also the insurance premiums are fixed on the basis of the real condition of the car and not merely on its age. This rewards customers who maintain their car well and penalises those who are callous. At the worst, the difference can be as high as 50% in the insurance premium amount.

In India unfortunately, there are no such allowances. Warranty claim process is so tedious that it is often a farce while insurance is just a legal mandate now. One that can be done by an agent for the lowest possible premium even without an evaluation of the car. As such to keep a car in prime condition is the only prerogative of the owner.

It is common knowledge that the older the car and the more archaic its technology, the more care and maintenance it requires. But no amount of reiteration is going to convince people to actually start taking it seriously.

There are a few aspects though, that if given even a cursory attention would lead a happier existence for your car.

Main reasons why cars get burnt?

* Short circuit in the electrical components is the most obvious reason accounting for nearly 70% of cases when cars have been burnt.

* Any electrical impulse like the battery getting ruptured can cause a spark, which may spread if it comes in contact with a flammable fluid.

* Leaking fuel lines or head gaskets and cracked blocks or radiators may also result in fire as the fluid may come in contact with electrical circuits. Almost all fluids in a car is flammable and any sort of leakage increases the risk of a mishap.

* Faulty after market fitment of electrical parts, CNG/LPG kits is another big reason. Unauthorised service centres use sub standard parts that are susceptible to a leakage and lack durability.

* Any overt modification in electrical components from a more sophisticated music system to LED head lamps tamper the basic design of the car and damage the car’s performance. A car in its original form is the only tested vehicle and any modification howsoever mundane only diminishes the safety.

* Contrary to popular belief, very seldom is it that a car gets burnt due to an explosion in the fuel tank. The fuel tank is very well isolated and only incase of a massive impact is it vulnerable.

What to do to prevent a mishap:

* Periodic service of the vehicle with an interval of 5,000 kms after 50,000 kms. Replace all fluids like engine oil, coolant and air and oil filters.

* Do not play with basic design of the vehicle unnecessarily. The battery can only take up limited additional electrical equipments, while tampering with the exterior dimishes its safety standards.

* Only fit LPG and CNG kits through authorised dealerships.

* Do not use water as a substitute to coolant. Water is not as effective a coolant and damages the radiator in the long term.

* Keep a regular watch on the temperature gauge of the car. Under ideal situation, the pointer should be just below the halfway mark.

Even after all of this, there is no guarantee a car would be fool-proof from any combustion. And the manufacturer has to own up to it in such cases.

But any self respecting car maker would be reluctant to do so and hence a set of laws that enables proper investigation every time a car catches fire is needed.

That will enable law makers to fix liability either on the side of the owner or the manufacturer. But that is a long shot in India. Till such time, all we can do is vote for prevention.

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