Watch for deer, and fire

The Fox 9 Investigators have confirmed five cases of Subaru Foresters which all started on fire after front-end collisions, three of which involved an animal, one including a Kangaroo. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is aware and is monitoring the situation.

One of those accidents occurred last September when Morgan Sweeney hit a deer just after midnight on I-94 outside Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 

She remembered the fire started within a minute of the crash.     

"I looked down at the hood between the windshield and the hood, and I saw flames coming out of there," Sweeney recalled. 

She grabbed her purse and some belongings. By the time she turned around a minute later, the front of the car was fully engulfed.

"I get kind of sick thinking if anything had gone differently if a door had jammed, or I wasn't able to get out," she said. 

Morgan Sweeney purchased her 2020 Subaru Forester a year earlier precisely because of its reputation for safety, for something exactly like this.

There are more than 16,000 car-deer crashes a year in Wisconsin, 45 a day on average. According to State Farm Insurance, the odds of hitting a deer in Wisconsin is one in 56, and only slightly less in Minnesota. 

"It was deer season. I was driving at night, so it's going to happen, and you don't ever intend to hit anything head-on. But when you do, you expect the car to be designed to handle that impact," Sweeney said.

Sweeney wasn't the only one whose Subaru Forester caught fire after striking a deer. It also happened to Nicole Woodworth. In May 2020, she had just bought her new Forester and had made only one payment on it when she struck a deer in Virginia. 

Five minutes later, her car was fully engulfed in fire.

"I'm just so thankful I wasn't knocked out, that I hadn't been hurt or was unable to get out, and of course, that nobody was with me in that event," Woodworth said.

In Australia last year, a Subaru Forester caught fire after hitting a kangaroo. 

Think of them as the deer down under, where there were 7,992 kangaroo collision claims in a year.

Morgan Sweeney contacted Subaru-USA, which conducted its inspection. The company wouldn't provide it in writing, but a company representative agreed to read the findings to Sweeney over the phone. 

She took scrupulous notes: "The result of this vehicle inspection indicated impact with the deer crushed the left side of the upper radiator support and bracking into the oil filter expelling engine oil and coolant that ignited on the exhaust. The incident was the result of the impact/crash damage to the vehicle."

 In other words, it was the deer's fault the Forester caught fire. But was that the whole story?

"To me, that does seem like a design flaw. Cars should be designed to take a front impact to a certain extent. Of course, things happen. But cars shouldn't burst into flames from hitting a deer," Sweeney said.

Sweeney filed a complaint with NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

And then heard crickets.

Michael Brooks of The Center for Auto Safety, a non-profit consumer watchdog, said that's not unusual. 

"It's something that we fear the most when we have identified what we believe is a problem is the manufacturer or the government not acting quickly enough to prevent future tragedies," Brooks said. 

NHTSA receives 70,000 complaints every year. 

At the request of the FOX 9 Investigators, Brooks reviewed the NHTSA database, and out of more than 900 complaints involving the 2019 and 2020 Subaru Forester, which are the same model years, he found two additional cases, in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, both front-end collisions with other vehicles, in which the vehicles burned in just a few minutes. 

Brooks said it often takes a couple of years for a problem to appear in a model.   

Sometimes it takes a single complaint to generate a recall, sometimes hundreds. It depends, Brooks said, on the calculated safety risk. 

"It can be anywhere along that spectrum. And the decision often times comes down to the manufacturer taking responsibility and doing the right thing. And sometimes that's NHTSA putting their feet to the fire," Brooks said. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for NHTSA told the Fox 9 Investigators, "NHTSA is aware of a limited number of complaints from Subaru vehicle owners regarding post-crash fire events. At this time, NHTSA is monitoring all data sources, including early warning reports and consumer complaints about this issue, as well as maintaining ongoing discussions with the manufacturer."

Woodworth's case never made it to NHTSA, even though it was reported to the Virginia State Patrol. 

There are reportedly two million Subaru Foresters on the road, again the Fox 9 Investigators found five confirmed cases of Subaru Foresters catching fire after a front-end collision of some kind. 

In a statement, Subaru USA Director Corporate Communications, Subaru Dominick Infante, told the Fox 9 Investigators:  "The Subaru Forester has an excellent safety record and has received an overall Five Star rating from NHTSA and is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, the highest achievable ratings from both organizations. By nature, vehicle accidents are violent and unpredictable events, and each one differs based on the accident forces and the damage sustained by the vehicle." 

Nicole Woodworth put it another way. She figures her Forester saved her life, even if it did burn. 

She went out and bought another one. 

"People said, you're getting another one? Well, you know, I walked away. So that's kind of best-case scenario in a car accident," she concluded.