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 about 400 North 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.
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 "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.
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).
It is important that you start by unbuckling your seat belt first. This gives you a full range of motion to unbuckle the seatbelt of others who may not be able to do so themselves.
- Unbuckle the children, starting with the oldest first (who can then help the others).
- Getting flustered and in too much of a hurry can lead to you making mistakes, which could ultimately cost someone their life, including your own.
- 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!
- 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 a car escape tool 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.
- Be aware that it's very hard to break a window by kicking, so better use the car escape tool to save time. 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. Aim for the center of the side window, and then strike the window with a large amount of force using the tool.
- 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. But Professor Giesbrecht recommends one with "center punch".
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 at 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.
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.
Tip: If you get disoriented while escaping from the vehicle, just follow the air bubbles. The air bubbles rise to the surface, and following them should lead you there.
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 the nearest hospital.
To summarize, please refer to the instructional photo collage below:
Car accidents are scary, but finding yourself in a sinking car is a nightmare scenario. By remaining calm and following some life-saving steps, you can escape a watery grave. You should also keep in mind any children who are in the car with you and make sure they make their escape before you do.