When you hop in your car for your daily commute to work you typically understand the hazards of the road. But do you ever consider the hazards of the water? Fatality due to vehicle submersion is more common than you may think, with an approximate 400 deaths in North America annually.
Hollywood has romanticized vehicle submersion by showing characters waiting until the car fills with water in order to escape, but the reality is that you have a very small amount of time in order to get out of there.
Research published in Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine by Gerren K. McDonald and Gordon Giesbrecht states that vehicle submersion has one of the highest mortality rates of any type of single-vehicle accident, accounting for 5 – 11% of all drownings.
Vehicle submersion is not a rare occurrence, and it’s important for you to understand the steps to take if you find yourself in this situation. Use this video as a visual guide, and follow these steps in order to ensure that you will be able to get safely out of your vehicle.
How Do I Get Out?
Brace for impact and do not panic
Upon impact, you will have approximately 30 seconds-1 minute in order to get out of the car before it is submerged. It is important that you remain calm so that you can be as efficient as possible in the small amount of time that you have.
Undo the seat belt
While a seat belt can be helpful in the case of a car collision, it can be your worst nightmare when trying to escape from a submerged car. Get that seat belt off and out of the way as quickly as possible and encourage others in the car to do the same.
Open the window
Manual windows are ideal when in this situation because you have a longer time period to roll the windows down. However, most car windows now are electronically controlled. This means that a few seconds after you hit the water the circuits will likely short, making it impossible to get the window down. You have up until the water reaches the bottom of the side windows, after which point the pressure from the water will make it impossible to open the windows. That means you have a very small amount of time with which to get those windows down to make your escape.
Exit the vehicle and swim to safety
Always exit the vehicle through the window closest to you. Do not try to open the vehicle door. The pressure from the water will make it difficult to do so, and it will increase the amount of water entering the vehicle, causing it to submerge faster. Swim away from your car, and towards safety.
Do not call 911 until after you have successfully escaped from the car. Attempting to call 911 while still inside the car will waste precious time, as support will not be able to reach you in the 1 minute time window that you have before your car submerges. If you do not have a phone, or your phone is waterlogged, find help after escaping the scene.
What about the children?
Children must always exit before the adults. Bring the children to the front seat in order to exit through the window. Get the eldest children out first and carry toddlers, babies and young children who can’t swim with you as you make your escape.
What If I Can’t Open the Window?
In the event that you have electronically controlled windows, and are unable to open them before the car dies, you will need a window breaking tool. These tools are inexpensive and don’t require strength to use. Keeping one in your car, and within reach is a necessary safety requirement.
Expert, Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba, trains individuals in underwater vehicle escape recommends the brand Res-Q-Me as an inexpensive and practical tool to assist in breaking windows.
This hammer has a stainless steel tip used to break open windows. It also has a knuckle cover to help protect you from the broken glass.
ResQMe Keychain ($9.95)
This small keychain uses a spring loaded mechanism to shatter the glass. It is compact and convenient, making it easy to carry with you or store in a quick-to-reach location. This product was originally developed for first responders and is now available to all safety-conscious drivers.
What Do I Do If the Car Is Submerged?
If you can’t open the window fast enough, and you can’t break it there is still a slight chance of escape. Once the car is fully submerged the water pressure will equalize, making it possible to open the door. In order to do this, you must be able to hold your breath under high-stress situations. Most people will not be able to hold their breath this long, which is why the chances are slight, but it is not impossible.
When the car is completely submerged, open the door closest to you, and allow yourself and all of the passengers in the car to exit through this door. You may need to use your feet for extra strength. The key here is waiting until the vehicle is entirely submerged. If you open to door too soon the water pressure will not allow the door to open.
How to Avoid It In the First Place
The more you know about what to do in a vehicle submersion incident, the better. Educate yourself and your family on the steps to take in order to safely exit the car. If you find yourself in this situation it will be very stressful, and having someone with a calm head and a plan will increase your chances of survival.
Invest in a window breaking tool that can be kept in your vehicle within reach. You can practice using the tool on a small piece of tempered glass, but be sure to wear gloves while doing so to protect your hand from broken glass.
Avoid High Water Situations
If you live in a flood zone and notice high water in your path, avoid driving into it. There is a chance that your car will short circuit in the water and you will be trapped in your car. In this instance it’s better to be safe than sorry, so avoid any dangerous situations on the road.
 Gordon G. Giesbrecht, Gerren K. McDonald. (August 2010). My Car Is Sinking: Automobile Submersion, Lessons in Vehicle Escape. Retrieved on September 13, 2017 from http://www.iws.ie/_fileupload/alivecarsubmersion%5B1%5D.pdf
 Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht. University of Manitoba: Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht FAQ’s. Retrieved on September 13, 2017 from http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/kinrec/about/giesbrecht_faqs.html#punch
 John Galvin. (May 24, 2013). How to Escape a Submerged Car. Retrieved on September 13, 2017 from http://www.popularmechanics.com/adventure/outdoors/tips/a11919/how-to-escape-a-submerged-car-15510924/