Arson Awareness Week   May 6-12, 2007

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Vehicle Arson Prevention

  • Park your car in a well-lit area
  • Use a secure parking lot for extended periods
  • Close all windows
  • Remove the key from the ignition
  • Always lock doors, trunk, and tailgate
  • Use antitheft devices
  • Report abandoned cars to the police

If there's a fire - what should I do?

  • Get yourself and others out of the vehicle
  • Call the fire department at 9-1-1 and tell the location of the fire
  • Stay away from the vehicle -- do not try to retrieve personal property
  • Never put yourself in danger attempting to extinguish the fire yourself
  • Do not open the hood or trunk if you expect a fire under it

The theme for this year's Arson Awareness Week is: "Vehicle Arson: Who Pays for this Crime?"

The goal of this year's Arson Awareness Week is to focus public attention on Vehicle Arson. By drawing people's attention to the astounding statistics about Vehicle Arson, we hope to expand the resources and support necessary to reduce this crime.

According to 2004 data from the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association, 36,000 intentionally set vehicle fires occurred, an increase of 18 percent from the previous year. Vehicle arson accounted for $165,000,000 in property damage, an increase of 25.0 percent from the previous year. Vehicle arson accounted for 29.0 percent of all arsons.

The 2004 Uniform Crime Report from the U.S. Department of Justice states that arson has one of the lowest clearance rates of any major crime. The national rate for arson in 2004 was 17.1 percent. Motor vehicle clearances were lower at 7.4 percent.

Meanwhile, nearly 20 percent of all arsons occur in vehicles; arson is the second-highest cause of vehicle fires.

"Far from being a 'victimless crime,' arson is expensive -- in pass-along costs and frequently in human life," said John Eager, senior director of claims for the Property Casualty Ensures Association of America. "The most recent statistics show that the number of suspicious vehicle fires is on the rise, as is the number of Americans killed each year as the result of arson."

A Sign of the Times

Arson fire involving a car.

Fire set with a potato chip bag that burned to a small plastic container of gasoline. Photo: Blair Darst

A sport utility vehicle (SUV) after an arson fire. Photo: John A. Bohn

A sport utility vehicle (SUV) after an arson fire. Photo: John A. Bohn

Deliberate fire set at the opening of a gas tank. Photo: Kelly E. Johnson

Deliberate fire set at the opening of a gas tank. Photo: Kelly E. Johnson

Car interior after an arson fire. Photo: John A. Bohn

Car interior after an arson fire. Photo: John A. Bohn

'Incidents of arson, like other crimes, are frequently linked to an economic downturn,' Eager continued. 'The reasons are many: not only are auto thieves trying to destroy evidence, but also financially strapped people trying to get out of costly auto leases, even farmers torching expensive farm equipment in an attempt to collect on their insurance policy.'

According to Philip Reed, in a article for Edmunds.com, an automotive information website, titled 'Torch My Ride: Arson for Hire,' sport utility vehicle (SUV) owners who are faced with rising gas prices have found a new way to get out from under their high car payments -- arson.

The loser in all this is the driving public. 'You and I pay for it in our premiums,' said Robert Rowe, arson investigator for the City of Downey and a member of the task force. 'Insurance premiums for everyone increase when crimes [like this] are committed.'

Bill Lundy, an Arson Investigator from Wisconsin, agrees, "The rise in vehicle arson can be expected with an increase in the cost of gasoline and the decrease in the actual cash value of less economical models."

Investigating Vehicle Arson is Difficult

Multiple points of origin are common because of all the natural accelerants in a vehicle. The fire itself destroys potential evidence. There are several fuel sources, including gasoline, wiring, and both interior and exterior components. There are numerous ignition sources, including engine, electrical systems, and exhaust components. The significant electrical wiring system has to be completely evaluated, which is both time consuming and physically difficult. Compact structures, such as vehicles, burn quickly and completely and are extremely difficult to investigate. There are various non-intentional contributing factors, such as damage from impact, defective parts, and system failures.

Rob Painter, an Arson Investigator from Wisconsin explains, "Commonly, there is damage or misplacement of the 'Evidence' from the fire department. It's not their fault, because their #1 job is to protect lives."

Randy Callison, an Arson Investigator from Illinois believes that, "Too often, vehicle fires in very rural areas often are never investigated by the Fire Marshal or an Arson Investigator of the county resulting in fewer reported vehicle arsons."

Insurance Companies – Vehicle Arson's Ally

While insurance companies are the biggest ally in fighting vehicle arson, sometimes their hands are legally tied by the terms of policies, especially in leases where arson is very prevalent.

Mike Herzberg, an Insurance Arson Investigator from Georgia, concurs, saying, "Most policies include language to the effect that 'we will protect the interests of the loss payee (lien holder)' regardless of the actions of the insured." He continues, "Therefore, if I have a vehicle fire in which the insured is 'upside down' (owes $10,000 on a car valued at $5,000) and he/she is six months in arrears on payments, my first thought would be 'arson'. However, I'm going to pay the value of the car to the lien holder regardless of my findings. Therefore the common 'business decision' is not to incur additional expenses (origin and cause investigation)."

“Some companies have decided it is cheaper to pay the claim and move on than have experts to do an origin and cause investigation, which will never be reported.”

Tim Yandell, an Arson Investigator from Oklahoma admits, "Some companies have decided it is cheaper to pay the claim and move on than have experts to do an origin and cause investigation, which will never be reported."

Bill Lundy reminds investigators, "The International Association of Arson Investigators has a motto, 'We are truth seekers, not case makers.' It seems to have stood the test of time."

Steve Harris, an Arson Investigator from Rhode Island has the same opinion saying, "Always remember to scientifically nail your 'Origin and Cause' first, and perform your arson investigation second. Protect yourself."

Not Just a Problem in the United States

In the United Kingdom, the number of deliberate vehicle fires has more than tripled in the past decade and now accounts for over half the 86,000 arson fires that fire brigades attend each year in the UK. Malicious car fires cost the insurers around £77 million (US $151,954,336) per year and result in around 20 deaths and a further 80 injuries.

Successful Practice – Winning the Battle

The Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System (MFIRS) identified motor vehicle fires and motor vehicle arson as a major problem in 1985.

Jennifer Mieth, manager of fire data and public education at the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal's Office, said car fires are "cyclical." In 1984, Mieth said it was "commonly accepted for Mr. and Mrs. Citizen to 'sell' their car back to the insurance company by lighting it on fire." She added, "When times are good, fires are down. When they are bad they go up."

To put a stop to that, the Burned Motor Vehicle Reporting Law, passed in 1987, required the owner of a burned motor vehicle to complete and sign a report that also must be signed by a fire official from the department in the community where the fire occurred.

This law has been effective in reducing motor vehicle fires overall and vehicle arsons in particular. Since it took effect in 1987, motor vehicle arsons have decreased 96 percent from a high of 5,116 in 1987 to 177 in 2005.

The percentage of motor vehicle fires that are arsons has also dropped 80 percent in the past decade from 16.5 percent in 1993 to 4.8 percent in 2005.

For more on the Massachusetts Burned Motor Vehicle Reporting Law, download the 2005 MFIRS Annual Report (PDF, 5.1 Mb). Refer to pages 74-77 and 120-127.


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