How to escape from a burning vehicle

Road safety expert Eugene Herbert provides tips that could save your life

11 December 2019 - 16:12 By Motoring Reporter
It's worth keeping a glass-breaking device in your cubbyhole - just in case you find yourself trapped after an accident.
It's worth keeping a glass-breaking device in your cubbyhole - just in case you find yourself trapped after an accident.
Image: Supplied

A bus en route from Cape Town to Zimbabwe caught alight on the N1 north near William Nicol Drive in Johannesburg on Wednesday morning, leaving passengers stranded and traffic severely backed up.

The 44 passengers and crew managed to escape through the windows just as the bus became engulfed in flames, said emergency services.

No one was killed - but many others whose vehicles burst into flames are not so fortunate.

Eugene Herbert, managing director of advanced driver training company MasterDrive, told TimesLIVE that while it is not common, finding yourself in a burning vehicle is a possibility.

According to Herbert, the first line of defence is to rectify any risk factors in your vehicle.

“Regular services and maintenance will detect risk factors, such as fuses blowing or oil and other fluid leaks. Of your own accord, pay attention to sudden and dramatic changes in fuel and oil levels and engine temperature," he said.

“If, however, you still find yourself in this situation, react quickly but calmly. Get out of the vehicle as fast as possible. Some retailers sell kits that you can keep in your cubbyhole to help you get out of the car if you can’t open the door or window. They contain items to cut seatbelts and break windows. Know where these are and keep them within reach.” 

Follow these tips if you find yourself in this dangerous situation:

  • If you notice smoke coming out of the air vents, from under the vehicle or even inside the cabin, pull over immediately and turn off the ignition.
  • Exit the car immediately.
  • Do not attempt to extinguish the fire yourself - rather call for emergency help as it is likely to worsen the fire.
  • Alert oncoming traffic to the danger with hazard triangles.

If you are stuck in a car after a crash, you should do the following:

  • Before you even encounter an emergency, read your owner’s manual to check if there is an emergency reserve that can open the doors and windows if the engine fails or if there are any emergency handles.
  • Do not wait for emergency personnel to free you - time is of the essence.
  • Keep scissors in the cubbyhole so that if your seatbelt does not release, you can cut it off.
  • If you do not have scissors, put the top section of your seat as far down as you can and try to wiggle out of the seatbelt.
  • If your window shattered in the crash, you should be able to kick the glass out.
  • If a window did not break, you will need to break one. Do not break the front or rear windows as the glass is more difficult to break - rather select a side window.
  • Breaking a window in a car is very difficult. It's therefore worthwhile to keep a glass-breaking device in the cubbyhole
  • If you don't have one, look for something strong and slightly pointed at the end.
  • Try to break the window around the edges, not in the centre.

None of these methods are failproof, however. “Power is knowledge. If you think of the possibility and how to escape from it before it actually happens, it may guide your reactions more effectively,” added Herbert.