Common sense can steer you the wrong way. Follow these proven steps instead.
While very few drivers will find themselves submerged in a sinking car, it’s a fate that draws our curiosity from time to time, often when passing over a bridge or near a body of water.
And while the likelihood that you’ll find yourself in a submerged car is low, there are clear right and wrong ways to free yourself from the situation. Knowing the difference may just save your life in this unlikely scenario.
A recent exercise by the University of Manitoba was conducted (and covered by The New York Times), revealing the best—and worst—tactics for escaping a submerged car.
Some are intuitive, but others aren’t, so learn the facts and don’t rely on common sense or a clear head to get you out of a chaotic, horrifying situation.
First things first: You’re on your own. Don’t bother calling for help or to loved ones. That’s precious time you’ll need to facilitate your exit from the car.
Secondly: Move quickly. This might seem like a painfully obvious statement, but people in this situation tend to recall how long it takes sinking boats to submerge. Well, your car isn’t a boat. It’s filled with lots of holes for water to enter, speeding up the submersion process. You might have five minutes in a large car, less in a small one. If your windows or sunroof are open, that window will be much smaller. Your likelihood of survival falls significantly after 60 seconds.
This video shows just how much your timetable gets compressed with an open window:
But the good news is that the Manitoba study showed that a family of three, along with a small child, were able to exit a sinking car in just 53 seconds.
Assuming the windows are still above water level, the process is simple and intuitive. Undo your seatbelt, lower your window (it should still work, even if it’s electric) and escape onto the roof of the car, helping others out after you exit. See to it that children exit before you do. Keep a glass-breaking tool in your car in the event the power windows aren’t operational.
Don’t open the door. Water will rush in and turn an already-chaotic scene into an even bigger one.
The myth is that your car will hit the water then submerge completely, but that’s just not the case. The car needs to fill with water before it sinks, so there should be no instance in which you’re beginning your escape from the car while submerged, which is good, because the likelihood or survival falls immensely at that point. However, the bulk of your car’s weight is in the front (or wherever the engine may be), so the back seat of your car may be the last part to submerge, so look to those windows, or the rear windshield as means to escape.
Once you exit the car, get out of the water. Many rescue workers have seen survivors die soon after of hypothermia from standing in knee-deep cold water that they didn’t know to avoid because they were in shock.
Finally, whatever’s in your car that’s not a person or pet … leave it. Searching for items wastes valuable time and holding onto items hinders your ability to escape and help others.
You will likely never find yourself in this situation, but if you do, move quickly to survive.