What should I do if I see a burning car on the side of the road?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

While traveling the highways and byways, I occasionally see cars on fire. I would like to help out, but I do not have a fire extinguisher. Should I buy one and carry it with me? What kind? There must be something more I can do than simply throw snowballs at the burning vehicle! -- John

RAY: Well, I hope you have a Nolan Ryan-type arm, John. Because you want to be good and far away, even if you're just throwing snowballs.

TOM: And to be honest, John, the type of fire extinguisher you'd be likely to carry in your car would be only a small improvement over snowballs.

RAY: If you catch a fire in its earliest smoldering stages, you might get lucky and be able to put it out with a store-bought fire extinguisher. But our best advice is to pull over a safe distance from the vehicle and use your cell phone to call the fire department.

TOM: Modern cars have fuel lines that are always under pressure. So if the fuel line burns through or ruptures while you are standing there with your fire extinguisher, you'd be toast.

RAY: And for what? A car?? Cars can be replaced. People can't. And besides, once a car is on fire, it's pretty much garbage, anyway.

TOM: Now, if there's a person in the car, that makes things more difficult. If you feel heroic, and no professional help is nearby, you can try to remove the person, and then get both of you far away from the car. But keep in mind that you're putting yourself in danger when you do this. AND you're potentially putting the accident victim in danger, since moving a person with spinal or neck injuries can make things worse. Of course, burning to a crisp in a flaming Festiva isn't so great either, so you have to use your best judgment.

RAY: But our advice is to forget all about the car itself. It's not worth risking your life for. Call the fire department. And if you feel compelled to help the owner of a burning vehicle, engage him in a conversation about what he's going to buy with all the insurance money.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One