NTSB Cites Lithium Battery Fire in Deadly Crash

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Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

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A speeding teenage driver caused the fatal crash of a Tesla Inc. vehicle in Florida in 2018 and the subsequent fire in the electric car’s battery contributed to the severity of his injuries, a federal investigation concluded.

The man, 18, who had previously been cited for speeding, was traveling as fast as 116 mph in a Model S and lost control on a curve of a street in Fort Lauderdale, where the speed limit was 25 mph, the National Transportation Safety Board found in a report released Dec. 19.

The driver and a front-seat passenger died as a result of the ensuing fire, the NTSB said. A passenger in the rear, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car and survived with multiple fractures.

The crash is one of several under review by the NTSB in which fires erupted in the highly flammable lithium-based batteries used in Teslas and other vehicles. The batteries are difficult for firefighters to extinguish and can reignite hours or days after a crash.

The safety board is planning to release a report on the battery fires in 2020. A Tesla spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the Fort Lauderdale accident, firefighters arrived at the scene four minutes after receiving the first emergency call. They reported that the heat from the fire was intense and they could see electrical arcing, NTSB said.

They attacked the blaze with 200 to 300 gallons of water and foam. Despite that, the battery reignited twice, according to the report.

A piece that had separated from the main battery briefly ignited after it touched a metal chain and went out by itself.

Firefighters had to spray more water on the battery after it caught fire again while being loaded onto a tow truck, NTSB said.

Lithium-ion batteries are highly flammable and have their own oxygen supply, making it hard to extinguish fires. If electricity is released after a failure, sparks can ignite the chemicals.

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