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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 and in Canada alone, 10 percent of drowning deaths can be attributed to being submerged in a car, and about 400 North Americans dying 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.
- Brace yourself for impact. 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 "ten and two" 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. 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.
- Undo your seat belt. Professor Dr Gordon Giesbrecht, who specializes in cold water immersion, says that the seatbelt is the first thing to attend to, yet it often gets forgotten in the panic. His motto 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 Gisbrecht 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.
- Open the window as soon as you hit the water. Following Professor Giesler'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. Moreover, Professor Giesler says that by opening the door, you invite a quick sink in place of the floating time available to get out. In his experiments with 30 vehicles, he found that all vehicles float, anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes. You could be using this float time to escape rather than opening the driver's side door and giving the water 5 to 10 seconds to sink the car and drown everyone in the backseat.
- There are numerous theories that advocate staying in the car calmly until it hits the bottom, fills with water, and you open the door and swim up. Mythbusters termed this the "maximum conservation of energy" approach and it looks viable when you watch it. The trouble with this theory (tested only in a swimming pool of known depth with a rescue crew on full standby) is that most times you won't know the depth of the water into which your car has plummeted, so waiting this long will usually prove fatal. This method worked just over 30 percent of the time in Professor Giesbrecht's study, while his S-C-W-O approach worked over 50 percent of the time.
- The end of the car that contains the engine will usually sink fastest, often leaving the car at an angle where the heaviest part of the vehicle is lower than the lightest. As such, you may be able to open some doors while the car is still floating.
- Break the window. 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. 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 second video below). 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.
- Escape through the broken window. 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 him or her 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.
- 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 ice covered water, you'll need to head for the obvious hole created by the car's impact. 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.
- 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.
- Hypothermia may be a real possibility, depending on the water temperature, level of shock passengers and drivers are experiencing, and external temperature.
This video shows Dr Giesbrecht's experiments, along with Rick Mercer.
- If you ride regularly with people and drive by water, discuss what to do if the car goes into the water. Anticipation and planning are critical to surviving life threatening emergencies like this one. Teach all family members including children the S-C-W-O method:
- Remove seatbelt
- Free children
- Open window
- Get out.
- Keep the tools for escaping within the vehicle at all times. The emergency window breaking devices are available from safety stores.
- Your clothing and heavy objects in your pockets can make you sink. Be mentally prepared to kick off your shoes and remove heavy outer clothing such as jackets if necessary. The less clothing you have on the easier swimming will be. Even your jeans or pants will weigh you down significantly.
- It can be difficult to direct other people in this situation. Be prepared and discuss the possibility before it happens. Focus on children first; adults will need to fend for themselves until the children have been helped, so don't be distracted.
- Don't bother turning your lights off. Turn them on if you are unable to escape or if the water is cloudy. The light's electronics are usually waterproofed, and the lights themselves will help rescuers find your vehicle.
- Under certain circumstances pressure may not equalize until the entire cabin is flooded. In this situation, either fight the current or wait until the car is fully submerged before making your escape.
- Don't take anything heavy or unnecessary with you as you escape, and remember that everything is unnecessary in this situation except your life and the lives of those around you.
- Under most circumstances you should not wait for help. Rescuers will most likely not be able to reach or locate you in time to provide support.
Things You'll Need
- Keep a center punch handy in the car or hanging off your keyring.
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