WASHINGTON -- If you have read the news lately, you may have noticed a troubling trend in auto safety.
In Oxon Hill, Md., early on the morning of Oct. 19, an SUV crashed into a fuel pump, lighting a fire and trapping the driver in the vehicle. The driver might have died had police officers not arrived in time to put out the blaze, The Washington Post reported.
A few days before that, in Clarkesville, Ga., a woman had to be airlifted to an Atlanta hospital after an explosion at a gas station. It appeared that while refueling a pickup, someone had lit a cigarette and ignited fuel vapor, according to local news outlets.
And some days before that, in Naples, Fla., a man was arrested after an incendiary dispute with a woman at a gas station, reported the New Times Broward-Palm Beach, an alternative weekly newspaper. According to the story, he was unhappy that the woman's car was blocking the exit. When the argument escalated, the man allegedly sprayed gasoline on her leg, then pulled a blowtorch from his trunk and threatened to set her on fire.
You can find stories just like those every day in newspapers across the country. They will never surprise you. You know that gasoline and diesel are flammable, but you accept that risk and shrug off the fires. After all, they are nothing new.
And yet when an electric vehicle catches fire, as one single Tesla Model S did on Oct. 1 in Kent, Wash., it draws national attention. "Car Fire a Test for High-Flying Tesla," a headline in The New York Times read. "This is Elon Musk's worst nightmare, isn't it?" one Bloomberg reporter asked in a newscast.
No. This is not that.
The electric vehicle has plenty of demons to fight. Batteries are still a more expensive way to power a car than the internal combustion engine, though the cost is dropping.
A lack of charging stations is still a problem in some parts of the country. Charging still takes much longer than fueling, even with today's best fast-charging stations.
But the Model S has a big advantage when it comes to fires: It is not filled with 15 gallons of gasoline that could go up in flames. The temptation to crane our heads at an unusual disaster on the road is no reason to forget that.
This is not to say that the rare instance of a flaming EV should be ignored.
David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told reporters Oct. 22 that NHTSA started looking into the Tesla fire once the government shutdown ended. Two days later, the agency said it would not open a formal investigation.
NHTSA was right to take a look at the circumstances of the crash. This is a new technology. Engineers, regulators and car buyers need to know its risks. Automakers and suppliers surely can learn from the early fires and do a better job of protecting their batteries.
But the next time an EV catches fire -- and there will be a next time because no method of storing huge amounts of energy is perfect -- you should search the news on the Internet. See how many fires have broken out at gas stations in the previous month.
And remember that of all the big challenges for the electric car, this ain't one of them.
You may e-mail Gabe Nelson at [email protected]