Today: Car Fires on the Horizon

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Oct 24, 2012

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1998 Ford Explorer. A few days ago, I had the left turn signal on and suddenly, it just stopped blinking. Then a very faint, almost imperceptible wisp of smoke came out of the steering column. I think I smelled a burnt-toast odor. The smoke and odor disappeared in about a second, leaving me wondering if I had imagined it all. A while later, the turn signal started working again.

Am I going to end up being one of those people stranded on the side of the highway watching their car go up in flames? Please help! My boyfriend insists that this is serious. But for me, it's really easy to ignore the problem (if it IS a problem), because it's working fine again now.

-- Judy

TOM: Well, just to be on the safe side, I wouldn't wear any flammable fabrics for a while. And avoid using hairspray before getting into the car.

RAY: It's potentially dangerous, Judy. The smoke is coming from your multifunction switch, which is the switch operated by your turn-signal stalk. It often controls several things, like the windshield wipers and, in some cars, the headlights and high beams, too.

TOM: Yours is arcing. When the two metal contacts of the switch no longer make firm contact -- because they're corroded or they're worn down -- the electricity will "jump" across the connection in the form of a spark.

RAY: And we all know that where there's spark, there's -- uh, sometimes fire, eventually. So, WILL your car definitely turn into a rolling barbecue grill? No. But CAN it, based on this problem? Yes. Definitely.

TOM: Plus, you know what the problem is, and you know what the solution is -- a new multifunction switch for a couple of hundred bucks from the dealer, or probably less from an independent shop. So why not just be safe and take care of it, instead of having to drive with one hand on the wheel and one hand always on a venti iced coffee, which you can use to douse any sudden flames?

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