Over four million people were hospitalized in America as a result of a car accident in 2019, according to the National Safety Council. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that hundreds of people sadly die each year from drowning after crashing into water. And though is a frightening prospect for any motorist, there are some simple steps you can follow to increase your chances of survival.
Being trapped in a sinking vehicle is an understandable fear for any motorist or passenger. Indeed, such a scenario would fit neatly into the script of any action movie or TV drama. And such fictional portrayals might help to stoke people’s anxiety when driving near bodies of water. The reality, however, is very different.
Though figures for fatal car accidents have been declining since 2017, the number of people losing their lives is still a huge concern. In 2019 the National Safety Council recorded nearly 39,000 motoring fatalities in America. The chances of drowning after crashing into water are much lower, of course, but it can still be scary should the unlikely happen.
For instance, a student from Calvert County, Maryland, found herself in a frightening scenario one night in July 2013. According to the Washington Post, Morgan Lake embarked on a three-hour drive to catch up with relatives and friends in Philadelphia. However, when the woman reached traffic while crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, she noticed something unusual in her rearview mirror.
The bridge can be unnerving for commuters at the best of times. The 186-foot structure reaches almost five miles to link Maryland’s western and eastern shores. To make matters worse, the bridge is also subject to inclement weather.
But the real fear for Lake took hold when, while stopped in traffic, she spotted an 18-wheel tractor-trailer in her rearview. Worryingly, it was tearing towards her as she sat stationary on the bridge. The approaching vehicle showed little to no sign of stopping as it got closer, and it struck her car with considerable force.
The Washington Post reported that the impact was enough to send Lake’s car veering into the bridge’s safety barrier. However, the vehicle rebounded onto the road and once again into the truck’s path. A second collision launched the student’s car several feet into the air. When it landed, it came to a precarious rest atop a concrete wall.
Lake’s vehicle apparently balanced on top of the wall for a while, but eventually the car pitched over the edge of the bridge and plummeted 27 feet into the river below. The motorist told the Washington Post in 2013 that the amount of time it took to fall “felt like [an] eternity.” And when the automobile hit the water, it quickly began to sink.
Lake said that the drop seemed to happen in slow motion. Then, as her car began to fill up with water, she understandably started to panic. The student said, “[I] felt I was going to die.” But, very quickly, she switched into survival mode.
“I got myself together,” Lake went on. She undid her seatbelt, held onto the car window and then pulled herself out of the car. Lake’s mom Melani told the The Washington Post that though she was aware that her daughter was an impressive athlete, “we didn’t know she could swim like that.”
Of course, Lake’s experience was an unfortunate accident, which is how many vehicle submersions occur. Cars may veer off bridges and docks into rivers, bays and harbors, for instance. But sometimes the handbrake may not be fully engaged when a vehicle is parked. And in those circumstances, it can roll into a lake or other stretch of water.
Sudden accidents can catch victims off guard, too. That’s what happened to Dan Sligh when the I-5 Skagit River Bridge collapsed in May 2013 in Mount Vernon, Washington. He was in a car that plunged into the Skagit River below after a truck veered off the road and smashed into the bridge – causing part of it to collapse.
Sligh’s pickup and another vehicle then hit the water. But, luckily, the automobiles got caught up in the collapsed bridge’s scaffolding. It was this stroke of luck that prevented the vehicles from sinking even further. Nevertheless, Sligh described his survival as nothing short of a miracle.
Elsewhere, president of Stark Survival Ken Burton sat down with The Washington Post to talk about how motorists can protect themselves from such scenarios. His company operates out of Panama City, Florida, and his decades spent as an Air Force instructor have equipped him with many survival skills – including how to escape from a car stuck in water.
“There are people who just have dumb luck,” Burton explained to The Washington Post. “God was sitting on their right shoulders, so they [manage to escape the submerged vehicle] even without the knowledge. And that is so fortunate.”
Now, it might be tempting to call for help when your car is sinking. For instance, you might want to dial 911 for the emergency services or coast guard. However, time is crucial when a vehicle enters water. Any outside assistance may not get there in time, so you will most likely have to act of your own volition.
Robert May is a member of the Indiana State Police Underwater Search and Recovery Team. And with more than two decades worth of experience, he’s well placed to comment on vehicle submersions. As he bluntly explained to The New York Times Magazine in 2017, “If you get on your phone and call your parents, or your sister, or 911, you will die.”
Natural instincts might also tell you to open the car door as soon as possible. But this will only cause the vehicle to fill up faster. In fact, the magazine cited one particular study which showed that a bus with a capacity of 65 passengers took only nine seconds to become fully submerged.
It may, then, seem logical to close car windows. Some have argued that the pressure outside and inside the vehicle needs to equalize before an escape is possible. However, the website Smart Driving cited a test shown on British TV which demonstrated that this process takes too long, and therefore it could be a dangerous strategy.
There are things you can do to survive being stuck in a sinking vehicle, though actions may vary from one situation to another. For instance, you might crash into a river, or a flash flood could force your car off the road. Sudden changes in conditions may require faster actions than, say, rolling into an expanse of water after knocking the handbrake off.
No matter what the circumstances are, however, time will be of the essence. Gordon Geisbrecht from The University of Manitoba told The New York Times Magazine that the first minute is critical. Indeed, it’s this window of opportunity which offers the greatest odds of survival. And though you must act quickly, it’s also important to stay calm.
Naturally, if you’re stuck in a car in deep water, it is crucial to get out as quickly as you can. Though at the same time, you will need to conserve energy in order to swim and fight the cold. The obvious instinct in a situation like this will be one of panic, but there are ways that this can be mitigated.
The website Smart Driving recommends switching on the interior lights of the vehicle. This will help you see better in the dark and also help would-be rescuers see your location. Also, be sure to take deep breaths if you’re not underwater, as it’ll help ease the panic.
The website then recommends that you unbuckle your seatbelt, and make sure that you do this as quickly as possible. Though you should be careful not to get tangled in the safety harness. Next, your focus should turn to getting out of the car.
Smart Driving says that it may be possible to open to a door while under water, but the window is probably going to offer the best chance of escape. Electric ones tend to work even when the vehicle is submerged, so try opening it. Alternatively, wind the handle down on a manually operated window. But if neither of those work, you’ll have to smash a window in order to get out of the car.
You can purchase specialist tools to shatter glass, and it may be handy to keep one in the car. Gordon Geisbrecht – who we mentioned earlier – trains police on how to escape from submerged vehicles. He told the website Popular Mechanics in 2013, “Make sure these tools are within reach at all times, otherwise you’ll never get to them in time. And they won’t work underwater. Again, you’ve got act quickly.”
Specialist tools are designed so that anyone can use them; you don’t need to be strong. But if there’s nothing to hand, improvisation may be necessary. A steering wheel lock can substitute for a hammer, for instance. Or use head rests if they can be removed; this will also make it easier for rear passengers get out. Meanwhile, another option is to gather some strength and smash the window by kicking it.
Geisbrecht described the time it takes for water levels to reach the base of the window as the “floating period.” It lasts between 30 seconds and a minute as the water rises. After this time, the pressure of the water against the door makes it impossible to lower the window, as it’s wedged shut in the door frame.
According to Popular Mechanics, vehicles will sink according to their weight distribution, so the end bearing the engine will go down first. Cars that sink front first will create an air bubble at the back of the vehicle. However, the front window is the best way out, as not all rear ones open fully.
Stark Survival’s Ken Burton told the Washington Post that you should focus on escaping through a side window. Though it may be tempting to try and break the windshield, it’s actually much thicker and will be harder to break. You can also use the steering wheel for balance and leverage to maneuver yourself out of the vehicle.
ABC News conducted a demonstration showing the steps to take in those crucial first moments after being submerged under water. Geisbrecht told the news outlet in 2013, “The first 30 to 50 seconds is when you have to get out of that vehicle.” And a diving team based in Florida revealed how to utilize that time to the best effect.
In a video clip of the test, all of the car’s occupants release their seat belts as soon as the vehicle hits the water. Within five seconds, both front windows have been wound down and the two passengers there begin to climb out. Around three seconds later, they have both escaped before the car fills with water.
As water rushes into the car, the first passenger in the back scrambles for the driver’s window. A fourth person follows closely behind and all of the vehicle’s occupants are out within just 20 seconds. But they were adults who knew what to do. What happens when you are traveling with young children?
Well, if there are kids in the car, be sure to get them out first. After your seatbelt is unbuckled, turn around to help with theirs. Drag them out from the back and push them through the driver’s side window, The New York Times Magazine suggests. What’s more, there is an important reason why you should get any children out of the car before yourself.
You see, while all of this is happening, water will be rushing into the vehicle. Children will have more difficulty fighting through the pressure, so they need your help. Older children should go first, so that you can carry infants out in your arms.
Elsewhere, ABC News decided to run a second demonstration with children. So experts used two men and a pair of dummies representing kids in the rear seats. In this clip, the car hits the water, the men immediately unwind the front windows, undo their seat belts, pull the two children out the back and then push them outside of the window. Only after this do the men themselves climb out the car. Impressively, this whole process takes just 21 seconds.
For his part, Indiana State Police Underwater Search and Recovery Team member Robert May offered some more advice to anyone stuck in a car submerged in water. He told The New York Times Magazine, “Escape while the car is floating on the surface.” Apparently, the rescuer has seen fatalities in water no deeper than a person could stand in.
But your actions will sometimes depend on the particular situation which you are in. For example, Morgan Lake – who as we explored earlier came off the Chesapeake Bridge – was able to escape her vehicle because her windows had shattered from the impact. This, of course, created a helpful escape route when the car was submerged.
Meanwhile, the work of Gordon Geisbrecht from The University of Manitoba helped convince the emergency services to change policy, according to ABC News. In 2013 it apparently became practice for operators to urge any motorists stuck in sinking cars to immediately exit the vehicle.
Naturally, such accidents can be frightening for anyone involved. As a backseat participant in ABC’s demonstration told the broadcaster, “It was very intimidating. The car went down quicker than I thought it would. I had a real inflow of water that I had to work against to get out. But it can be done.” And, as Geisbrecht explained, “The point is, everybody knew what they were supposed to do. Get your seat belt off. Open the window. Period. Get Out.”