Let’s be honest, most of us don’t know what half of the lights on our car’s dashboard mean. But even when those dreaded words “check engine” are illuminated, many of us end up ignoring them for longer than we should. In fact, a recent survey of 1,239 drivers found that 30 percent of people say they will wait anywhere between one month to an entire year to get their cars checked after their “check engine” light goes on. And while many mechanics say that light usually turns out to be on due to something relatively benign, there are some red flags that do pop up on your dashboard that you shouldn’t be ignoring, unless you want to risk your car catching on fire. Read on to find out the tell-tale sign your car sends you that means you need to stop driving and get out immediately.
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Get out of your car right away if you notice the engine temperature changing rapidly.
A rapid change in your engine temperature is a major warning sign that your car could catch on fire or that it already has, says David Clelland, an automative expert and director of Infiniti Tracking, a vehicle tracking systems company. Your engine temperature is indicated by the temperature gauge dial on your dashboard, which is usually situated in the center. Ideally, your car engine should be running at a temperature of 195 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the experts at Auto Warehouse.
Once the meter starts to move towards the hot side of the dial, your engine is starting to overheat—and if this happens quickly, it’s the sign of a fire that could erupt momentarily or has already started. “A rapidly rising temperature gauge could be a sign that a fire has already started,” warns Ian Lang, the resident car expert at Bumper.
“When you notice or observe this, it’s best to leave your car alone and call someone to help you out,” Clelland says. A car fire can get out of hand quite quickly, so it’s important to exit your vehicle right away.
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You may start to notice more obvious signs of an engine fire, too.
Alongside a rapid change in your engine’s temperature, Lang says you may notice more obvious signs of a car fire, like the smell of smoke coming through the vents or you may even see smoke coming out from under the hood. Mark Beneke, the co-owner of two used car dealerships in Fresno, California, says the smell of burnt plastic or rubber is also a major indicator that your car is either about to catch on fire or already has.
“The chassis is small and flames can reach you very quickly, not to mention the smoke that gets trapped in there as well,” Beneke warns. “If you notice any type of flames, turn off the vehicle, get out immediately, and get as far away as you can.”
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Thousands of engine fires happen every year in the U.S.
From 2014 to 2016, there were an average of around 171,500 highway vehicle fires each year in the U.S, which resulted in 345 annual deaths and 1,300 injuries on average, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The agency says that 62 percent of these fires had originated in the engine area of the vehicle, with mechanical failure being the leading factor. “Fires that originated in the engine area were by far the deadliest, accounting for 35 percent of all deaths,” FEMA also stated.
A fuel leak could also result in a car fire.
The engine temperature gauge is not the only thing you’ll want to watch on your dashboard; you should also pay attention to your fuel gauge. Julie Bausch, an automative expert and managing editor of Car Talk, says that an abrupt change in fuel levels is often a sign of a significant leak, which can also result in a fire.
“If you get in your car, and the fuel level is much lower than it was when you last drove your car, get out and look underneath the vehicle. Chances are, you will see a puddle of fluid,” Bausch says. “Do not drive the car at that point. The leak could be anywhere, and it could mean a dangerous set of circumstances.” She says you should call your mechanic instead.
A leak from the fuel system can be very deadly because “gasoline is the most corrosive and flammable fluid a car carries,” according to the legal team at Thomas Law Offices, which is in Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri. “It can quickly catch fire from a single spark.”
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