Iím strongly considering purchasing two vital accessories for my car. No, these arenít the latest Blaupunkt stereo with woofers or fur-lined seat covers or even a spanking new flat-screen car TV ó not that I would mind outfitting my ride with all these. Far from it. What Iím talking about are not performance-enhancing accessories but rather, life-saving ones. The first is a fire extinguisher and the second, a special hammer meant for breaking window glass.
When I was a young child I had the unpleasant experience of seeing ó and being involved in ó not one, but two car fires. Once late at night I vividly remember my father bundling us out of the car and shepherding us as far away as we could get from the vehicle. We then stood there watching the fire burning away under the bonnet. If it had not been for a passing taxi and the taxi driverís quick reaction in putting the fire out, weíd have been looking at a certain dead loss and possibly, a life-threatening explosion.
The second time it happened was in the driveway leading to our house. Fortunately, our neighbours were around, and together we managed to put out the fire once again. In both cases, we were able to get out of the car rapidly. But the question arises: what happens when you get stuck in the car and canít get out in time'
Recently in Delhi, a car caught fire while moving and because the doors were locked, the occupants couldnít get out. They were burnt alive inside the car. Itís not sure why the central locking system jammed. The carís manufacturers put out a statement of condolence in which it was mentioned that it was most likely that the carís systems may have been tampered with by an unauthorised entity, which could have resulted in the situation.
So what causes a car fire' How does one avoid such incidents and what does one do in such a situation' Returning to basic chemistry, a fire requires three ingredients ó high temperature, easy access to oxygen and of course, fuel. Put the three together and one could have a crackling bonfire going in seconds. Remember, in the engine compartment, all three are in abundant supply. Petrol is vapourised and introduced into the engine, the spark ignites the fuel inside the engine but outside the engine, the heat comes from the exhaust manifold. And of course, the compartment being exposed to the atmosphere means that there is an abundant supply of air and oxygen.
A fire normally happens when there is a leakage of petrol. In both carburetted and fuel-injected cars, the source of fuel is the supply pipe. Remember there is a fuel pump, either mechanical or electrical, pushing petrol into the engine at a high rate. If the pipe has perished or it springs a leak, the fuel just has to fall on the manifold to get things going.
Fire needs stuff to feed on and itís not just fuel that keeps a fire going. In fact, when a fire starts, there is the added danger of being poisoned by the gases that develop once the fire takes hold of any synthetic material in the car like the fascia of seat and seat cover material. I canít say this enough ó vehicle maintenance is the key to preventing a car fire. Make sure all fuel lines are in very good condition.
If a fire does start in your car, get out immediately. If you have an extinguisher, use it. It may not stop the fire completely, but it could give occupants valuable time in which to get out of the car. If the doors cannot be unlocked, then break the glass either with the hammer or use your feet to kick the rear windscreen and make it pop out. Fire travels very quickly, so do not sit there and try to call for help on your mobile phone.
To sum things up, remember that prevention is better than trying a cure. Make sure the car is maintained on a regular basis ó check all the electricals, including wiring and the insulation. If you have to put in extra features that are a drain on the electrical system, have the car manufacturerís workshop do it, failing which, go to a competent, qualified garage. Make sure the fuel lines are in top shape and replace them regularly. Buy a fire extinguisher and keep it within reach, not in the boot or under-bonnet area, as you may not be able to get to it in time. Finally, be prepared to break your way out of the car ó get that hammer and keep it within easy reach. Above all, try and stay calm, knowing that you ARE equipped to deal with fire. As for me, you can bet Iíll be making a trip to the markets for that fire extinguisher!
Illustration by Suman Chowdhury
My first car
Jyoti Khaitan, My first car was a shiny black Contessa that saw me through my high school and college years. I have very fond memories of that car. In fact I honed my driving skills in it. The Contessa was a gift from my family, and it left me with a lasting taste for luxury cars. There werenít very many big cars on Calcuttaís roads in those days, and driving around a Contessa gave me a heady rush. Itís hard to explain, but I felt almost powerful while driving around in the car. It certainly notched up my glam quotient during those student days, and I especially loved the spacious feel of it.
I held on to my Contessa for about five or six years, before getting a new set of wheels. Iíve gone through many more cars for myself since then, but that black Contessa still holds a very special place in my heart.