What about the reports of fires? Are electric vehicles more dangerous?
Some news outlets pounced on the Chevy Volt when one caught on fire after a government test in 2011. Turns out the fire erupted three weeks after the Volt was flipped on its back as part of the test. Volt supporters fired back at critics that three weeks should be plenty of time to escape a crashed vehicle.
Fisker Automotive, maker of the slinky Karma sports car, issued a recall after a car in Woodside, Calif., was caught on video burning in a parking lot. The Karma's lithium ion battery was found not to be at fault, but rather a faulty cooling fan unit. In a separate, earlier recall, hundreds of purchased Karmas had to be fixed because of a battery design flaw that could potentially lead to a fire [source: Edelstein].
During "superstorm" Sandy (which devastated parts of the northeast United States in October 2012), Fisker and many other manufacturers lost thousands of cars parked at the Port Newark shipping docks in New Jersey. Salt water is notorious for corroding electrical connections, as it no doubt did on many of the hurricane-flooded vehicles at the port. In one of the parked Fisker Karmas' computers, corrosion led to a short-circuit, which developed into a fire. High winds blew the flames onto a total of 15 other Fisker Karmas (please, the "bad karma" joke has been played out). Call it misfortune or perhaps even flawed wiring design, but the incident appeared not to be inherent to the car's lithium ion battery.
Fires in electric cars make big news, and in practically every documented case the cause turns out to be unrelated to their electric propulsion method. Meanwhile, there is approximately 1 vehicle fire every 2 minutes in the United States involving a conventional motorcycle, passenger car, SUV or truck. That adds up to more than a quarter-million vehicle fires per year that result in about 480 deaths annually. Manufacturers are constantly issuing recalls on petroleum-powered vehicles for defects that could cause fires. They don't make big headlines though because they're so routine [sources: National Fire Protection Association and Newman].
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded its investigation into the Volt's safety by stating, "Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe that Chevy Volts or other electric vehicles pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles" [source: NHTSA].