Any car accident is frightening, but an accident in which your vehicle is thrown into the water, with you trapped inside, is absolutely terrifying. Such accidents are particularly dangerous due to the risk of drowning. 10 percent of drowning deaths can be attributed to being submerged in a car, and about 400 Americans die from being submerged in a car every year.
However, most deaths are a result of panic, not having a plan and not understanding what is happening to the car in the water. By adopting a brace position to survive the impact, acting decisively when the car ends up in the water, and getting out fast, being trapped in a sinking vehicle is survivable, even if it’s a flooded river.
Here are the steps to survive a car in water.
As soon as you’re aware that you’re going off the road and into a body of water, adopt a brace position. This is done by placing both hands on the steering wheel in the “nine and three” positions. The impact your car makes could set off the airbag system in your vehicle and any other brace position could cause serious injury in such an event. If your hands are located at “ten and two” position when the airbag inflated it could force your hands into your face resulting in serious injury. Remember, an airbag inflates rapidly, within 0.04 seconds upon being triggered. Once this aspect is out of the way, prepare for the next step immediately.
• Remain calm. Panic reduces energy, uses up precious air, and causes you to blank out. Repeat a mantra of what to do to get out (see next step) and stay focused on the situation at hand. Panic can be left for the shore when you reach it.
The seat belt is the first thing to attend to, yet it often gets forgotten in the panic.
The motto here is: Seat belt; children; window; OUT (S-C-W-O).
• Unbuckle the children, starting with the oldest first (who can then help the others).
• Forget the cell phone call. Your car isn’t going to wait for you to make the call and sadly, people have lost their lives trying this. Get busy getting out.
• There is a counter-theory that suggests the seat belt should be left on. This theory suggests that if you release your seat belt, you may, due to underwater disorientation, end up moving away from the window or door opening due to the ingress of water through the opening.
If you need to push the door open, being anchored by the seat belt might give you additional leverage, versus pushing the door while you’re suspended in the water. Having your seat belt on could also help you maintain your sense of orientation if the car flips upside-down.
On the downside, having your seat belt on can also make it harder to get out quickly and to move out, which is the point of reacting quickly from the start and not waiting in the vehicle. In the video featuring Rick Mercer and Professor Giesbrecht below, they show clearly that it’s important to be able to move around from the start, including if you need to move to the backseat to get out of the car as the engine-heavy front part starts tipping deeper first.
3. Open the window as soon as you hit the water.
Following Professor Giesbrecht’s recommendation, leave the door alone at this stage and concentrate on the window. A car’s electrical system should work for up to three minutes in water. (not that you have three minutes of course), so try the method of opening it electronically first. Many people don’t think about the window as an escape option either because of panic, lack of using the window for exit normally, or because they’re focused on lots of misinformation about doors and sinking. There are several reasons for not bothering with the door according to Professor Giesler. Immediately upon impact, you have only a few seconds in which opening the door of your sinking car is possible, while most of the door is still above water level. Once the car has started to sink, it is not humanly possible to open the door again until the pressure between the inside and the outside of the car has been equalized (leveled); this means that the car cabin has to be filled with water and that’s not really a state you want to be in.
If you aren’t able to open the window, or it only opens halfway, you’ll need to break it. You will need to use an object or your foot to break the window. You can also take your headrest off and use the metal inserts to break a window. It may feel counter-intuitive to let water into the car, but the sooner it is open, the sooner you will be able to escape directly through the broken window.
• If you have no tools or heavy objects to break the window with, use your feet. If you have high heels, these might work when placed at the center of the window. Otherwise, Professor Giesbrecht advises that you aim to kick near the front of the window or along the hinges (see the demonstration in the video). Be aware that it’s very hard to break a window by kicking, so find these breakpoints. Don’t even try the windshield; it’s made to be unbreakable (safety glass) and even if you did manage to shatter it (unlikely in the time you have), the stickiness of safety glass can make it hard to get through. Side and rear windows are the best options for escape.
• If you have a heavy object, aim for the center of the window. A rock, hammer, steering wheel lock, umbrella, screwdriver, laptop, large camera, etc., might all serve as suitable battering objects. Even the keys might work if you’re strong enough.
• If you’ve already thought ahead, you might have a window breaking tool handy in the car. There are various tools available. Professor Giesbrecht recommends a “center punch”, which is a small tool that could be easily stowed in the driver’s side door or on the dashboard, for fast retrieval. This power punch is usually spring-loaded and can also be found in a hammer shape. Failing that, you could also carry your own small hammer.
Take a deep breath, and swim out through the broken window as soon as you’ve broken it. Water will be gushing into the car at this point, so expect this and use your strength to swim out and up. Professor Giesbrecht’s experiments have shown that it is possible to get out through this torrent (contrary to some theories) and that it’s better to go now than to wait.
• Look to children first. Heave them up toward the surface as best you can. If they cannot swim, see if you can give them something that floats to hold onto, with strict instructions not to let go. An adult may need to go with them immediately if there is nothing to hold onto.
• As you exit the car, do not kick your feet until clear of the car – you could injure other passengers. Use your arms to propel you upward.
• If the car is sinking quickly and you haven’t gotten out yet, keep trying to get out of the window. If there is a child in the car, tell them to breathe normally until the water is up to their chest.
Escape when the car has equalized, If it has reached the dramatic stage where the car cabin has filled with water and it has equalized, you must move quickly and effectively to ensure your survival. It takes 60 to 120 seconds (1 to 2 minutes) for a car to fill up with water usually. While there is still air in the car, take slow, deep breaths and focus on what you’re doing. Unlock your door, either with the power button (if it is still working) or manually. If the doors are stuck (which they probably will be in most cases, with the pressure being massive), hopefully you’ve been busy breaking the window already, as advised in the previous steps.
• Continue to breathe normally until the water is at chest level, then take a deep breath and hold your nose.
• Stay calm. Keep your mouth closed to preserve breath and to prevent water from entering. Swim out through the broken window.
• If exiting via an open door, place your hand on the door latch. If you are unable to see it, use a physical reference by stretching your hand from your hip and feeling along the door until you locate the latch.
6. Swim to the surface as quickly as possible.
Push off the car and swim to the surface. If you don’t know which way to swim, look for light and swim toward it or follow any bubbles you see as they will be going up. Be aware of your surroundings as you swim and surface; you may have to deal with a strong current or obstacles such as rocks, concrete bridge supports, or even passing boats. If it’s very cold water, keep moving and get everyone out as quick as possible, do your best to avoid injuring yourself on obstacles, and use branches, supports, and other items to cling to if you’re injured or exhausted.
7. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
The adrenaline in your bloodstream after the escape may make you unable to detect any injuries you may have sustained in the accident. Hail passing motorists who can call for help on their phones and provide you with warmth, comfort, and a lift to nearest hospital.