Ottawa

Reports of Smart car fires in Ontario multiply

More Ontario drivers are telling their stories of fires in Smart cars following CBC's report of incidents in Ottawa and Brockville. One says she's baffled by Transport Canada's apparent lack of interest in her case.

Transport Canada dropped investigation into recent incident despite ongoing U.S. probe

A mechanic ripped out material from the engine compartment of Valerie Hovinga Bisset's 2008 Smart car after it began smouldering. A U.S. safety authority is investigating unexplained fires in Smart vehicles of that model year, but Transport Canada never followed up on Hovinga Bisset's report. (Valerie Hovinga Bisset)

While Transport Canada investigators pick over the wreck of a Smart car that mysteriously caught fire on Highway 417 in Ottawa this fall, the department declined to pursue a similar incident in July — even though its U.S. counterpart had already started a formal investigation of the same model of vehicle.  

They are two of at least five known Smart car fires in Ontario, four of them involving the same year's model.

Valerie Hovinga Bisset was dropping off items for donation at a thrift shop in Elmira, Ont., when a bystander alerted her to smoke seeping out of her 2008 Smart car. It was coming from the rear of the vehicle, where Smart cars' engines are located.

​"I went around the back and opened the hatch, and it just poured out at that point. It was really a lot of smoke," Hovinga Bisset said. "I was in shock."

Valerie Hovinga Bisset's Smart car caught fire while she was doing an errand in July 2017. She told CBC she's disappointed that neither Transport Canada nor carmaker Mercedes-Benz Canada have followed up to figure out the cause. (Peter Bisset)

Insulation smouldering

Hovinga Bisset had just come from an auto shop where she'd had the car's leaking muffler replaced. 

A technician from the same shop came to fetch the smoking car. Rick Weber, owner of Martin's Small Engines & Auto Clinic, inspected the vehicle. He told CBC that a material intended to shield the car's interior from the heat of the muffler was smouldering, so they removed it.

Weber's theory is that the insulating material — which he described as deteriorated — had fallen on the muffler and ignited.

"It's a little strange that the material that's in the car to protect the cab from the heat of the muffler, if it comes in contact with the muffler, that it would start to burn and smoke and potentially cause a fire," Weber said. "I think that is a concern."

After doing some research online and seeing other accounts of fires in Smart cars in Canada and abroad, Hovinga Bisset decided to report her experience to Transport Canada's Defect Investigations and Recalls Division.

Since then, no one from the department has followed up with her, even though authorities in the U.S. began formally investigating unexplained Smart car fires in December 2016 — more than six months before Hovinga Bisset's incident. 

There wasn't much left of the 2008 Smart car that burst into flames while being driven on Highway 417 in Ottawa in October. Transport Canada is investigating that incident to determine if the fire was caused by a vehicle safety defect. (Marc Caron)

Transport Canada didn't investigate

Transport Canada previously told CBC that prior to the Ottawa incident in October, it had received just one report of a fire in a Smart vehicle, and that fire was not due to a safety defect. It declined to provide further details, citing privacy.

The department has now confirmed that that incident and Hovinga Bisset's are one and the same, so Transport Canada seems to have arrived at its conclusion without fully investigating.

By contrast, when Hovinga Bisset made a report to the American safety authority, an investigator called the next day to question her thoroughly about the incident, she said.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened a "preliminary evaulation" of 2008 and 2009 Smart vehicles following complaints of alleged engine compartment fires. That investigation was upgraded in September to an "engineering analysis" which could lead to authorities recommending a recall if evidence of a safety-related defect is found.   

Transport Canada declined CBC's request for an interview. In a statement, the department said it follows guidelines to assess complaints, and in the case of Hovinga Bisset's, the decision to forgo further action was "based on the details supplied by the owner and the circumstances under which the incident occurred."

5 Smart car fires in Ontario

CBC knows of five Smart car fires in Ontario, four of which involved 2008 models.

  • November 2010: In Brockville, a 2008 Smart car owned by Jonathan and Marion Wyatt goes up in flames in their driveway in the middle of the night. 
  • August 2014: Ian Critchell's 2008 Smart car explodes at an ONroute service area in Barrie. A passing motorist captures the incident on video and posts it on YouTube.
  • July 2017: Valerie Hovinga Bisset is dropping off items at a thrift shop when a bystander alerts her to smoke coming from the rear of her 2008 Smart car. A mechanic discovers material inside the engine compartment is smoldering.
  • October 2017: Aurélie Rossier, a visitor to Ottawa from Switzerland, is driving her friend's 2008 Smart car on Highway 417 in Ottawa when the car suddenly fills with smoke. Shortly after she exits the vehicle, it bursts into flames.
  • December 2017: Ottawa firefighters extinguish a blaze in a Smart car on a busy stretch of Walkley Road, one of the city's major arteries. CBC is unable to verify the car's vintage.

Sign of defect?

Canadian legislation does not apply to defects resulting from errors made during vehicle repairs. 

Hovinga Bisset's recent muffler replacement could therefore be the reason Transport Canada did not investigate further, speculated George Iny, head of the Automobile Protective Association (APA).

However, Iny said the department should at least have contacted the technician who worked on the car before concluding no manufacturer's defect was to blame.

"Falling insulation, in the absence of an external cause like someone reinstalling it for some reason, could constitute a vehicle safety defect," Iny said in an email.

Rick Weber from the Elmira auto repair shop said it's "certainly possible" the heat shield was slightly disturbed during the repair job, but reiterated his concern about the flammability of the material.

"A little bit on top [of the muffler] shouldn't result in smoke and potential fire," he said.

By coincidence, another Smart vehicle was in the shop for maintenance the same day, Weber said, and the scare with Hovinga Bisset's car motivated him to check that car's insulation as well. Noting deterioration, staff trimmed the material to reduce the potential fire risk, he said.

Jonathan and Marion Wyatt were asleep in their Brockville home in November 2010 when they awoke to the sound of exploding tires at around 1 a.m. Their 2008 Smart Fortwo "literally melted into the driveway," said Marion Wyatt. (Jonathan Wyatt)

'It's shocking'

Smart car maker Mercedes-Benz also has a responsibility to both report potential safety defects in its cars and to investigate them, Iny said, but as was the case with other incidents reported by CBC, that does not appear to have happened after Hovinga Bisset's incident.

We realized we weren't getting anywhere. They weren't concerned.- Valerie Hovinga Bisset, Smart car owner

Hovinga Bisset said her husband called Mercedes-Benz Canada while she listened over the phone's speaker, seething.

"I got really angry listening to their stock reply that they had never heard of any incident like mine ever happening," she said. "We realized we weren't getting anywhere. They weren't concerned."

Hovinga Bisset is troubled by thoughts of what could have happened if the smoke wasn't noticed. Her father lives in a nursing home across the street from the donation centre she was visiting that day, and she'd been planning to drive him to her sister's home in Arthur, Ont., about half an hour from Elmira.

"He's 94 years old.... Some of these incidents, they say they barely have enough time to get out," Hovinga Bisset said.

"It's shocking. It's really shocking."

Customer safety 'primary concern': carmaker

In an e-mail, a spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz Canada said the company could not comment on a specific customer file for privacy reasons, but "at this time there is no evidence of vehicle defect for the incident reported."

The company said the Smart car has "an excellent safety record in Canada" and that the safety of its customers is its "primary concern." 

"Mercedes-Benz Canada and our parent company Daimler fully co-operate and support all inquiries relating to vehicle safety," said the statement. "Please understand that we cannot give any further details due to ongoing investigations at this time."

List of Ontario incidents growing

Hovinga Bisset resumed driving her Smart car after having new and different insulating material installed in the engine compartment.

That wasn't an option for another unlucky Smart car owner who told his story to CBC.

There wasn't a lot left of that car.- Ian Critchell, former Smart car owner

"It was a very stormy, rainy evening, and who'd think I would be driving up the Highway 400 on fire?" said Ian Critchell in an e-mail.

Critchell, who was living in Havelock, Ont., was on his way to visit friends near Barrie in August 2014. In an interview, he said he later learned police received several calls about his smoking Smart car on the highway, but he didn't detect a problem himself until a stop at a rest area. 

Critchell headed inside briefly to get a coffee, and when he stepped back out he saw flames shooting out the back of his car. He raced to retrieve his phone and jacket from the vehicle before it exploded. 

"There wasn't a lot left of that car," Critchell said, adding he also got stuck with a bill for repairing the asphalt beneath the wreck.

Critchell bought the car used from a dealer, and said he never had any problems with it before the fire. Nor did he ever discover the fire's cause.

"The fire chief said to me, 'It's probably a bad electrical ground,'" Critchell said. "And I just took it. 'OK, well that's it, end of story.' And the vehicle was taken away."

Critchell did file an insurance claim and got about half of what he'd paid for the car, he said, but he did not report the incident to Transport Canada or Mercedes-Benz Canada. It appears the insurance company also made no report to Transport Canada since the department told CBC it had no reports of Smart car fires — aside from Hovinga Bisset's — until the recent incident in Ottawa.

The APA's George Iny previously told CBC that insurance companies should be required by law to report suspected safety defects to Transport Canada, but they frequently don't, in some cases reaching cash settlements with manufacturers instead.   

There have now been at least five fires in Smart cars in Ontario, at least four of them 2008 models.

The most recent fire happened on Dec. 11, when Ottawa firefighters extinguished a burning Smart car on a busy stretch of Walkley Road near Sheffield Road.

A spokesperson for Ottawa Fire Services said the fire damaged the rear of the car, including the engine compartment. CBC has been unable to discover that car's model year or any information about that fire's potential cause. Transport Canada said it is working with the fire department to obtain information about the incident.

The U.S. safety authority opened its investigation of 2008 and 2009 Smart cars after eight fire complaints.

About the Author

Susan Burgess

Associate Producer

Susan Burgess is an associate producer on CBC Radio's All In A Day. You can reach her at Susan.Burgess@cbc.ca or on Twitter @susanmburgess.