Advanced Preparation Is Key
Although the accidents can happen any time of the year, knowing how to escape from a sinking car can be particularly important during the summer months, when millions of folks across the country are headed to lakes, rivers and oceans to enjoy their vacation fun. Which is why Autobytel.com recently turned to Gerald M. Dworkin, a national expert on Aquatics Safety & Water Rescue for Lifesaving Resources, to get some tips on how to escape from a sinking car for our readers.
First off, Dworkin notes that this is no small concern. Some 400-600 fatalities occur each year as the result of vehicles being submerged in water—more than drown each year in swimming pools. Further, he also warns of an unintended consequence of recent changes to federal safety guidelines, originally meant to protect occupants from being ejected from a vehicle during a crash.
According to Dworkin: "As a result, many manufacturers are now building vehicles with laminated, rather than tempered, side-door windows. This is going to prevent occupant escape during a submerged-vehicle incident and also will delay the first responders' ability to access the inside of the vehicles. This means that although the number of incidents will not be impacted, the number of fatalities each year will certainly increase."
That being said, learning how to escape from a sinking car starts with being prepared in advance.
The no. 1 tip for how to escape from a sinking car is making sure you don't get into the water in the first place, and that means being aware of your surroundings. Some vehicles will float in as few as six inches of water, but it's vital to remember that all will begin sinking eventually, usually in just 20 to 120 seconds. For these reasons, Dworkin advises drivers to develop and practice an escape plan in advance, much as people are supposed to do in case of house fires.
This includes making sure the vehicle is equipped with a rescue/escape tool for both breaking windows and, if necessary, cutting seatbelts. (Just note: Dworkin is clear that: "Wearing seatbelts will increase your chances of surviving a crash into the water.") The tool should remain within easy reach of the driver at all times—there are even small, spring-loaded versions that can be hooked to a keychain—and it can be worthwhile to ensure there are tools available for the passengers as well.
As another tip, although Dworkin indicates that both those spring-loaded tools and hammer-style models have proven effective in breaking tempered glass, the sharp points on the former can be dulled during "practice" runs, so owners need to be aware of that, too. Also, be sure to use work gloves during practice, to avoid possible injuries from shattering glass. (Dworkin recommends www.ResQMe.com/US/ as a resource for vehicle-escape tools in this country.)
When young children are involved, there can be an added factor in learning how to escape from a sinking car: Some—but not all—child safety seats will float in the water, so folks can cut the seats free from the traditional belts if necessary, without having to cut the actual safety-seat restraining straps. However, this is something that must be confirmed on a seat-by-seat basis with the manufacturers.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember if you're in a vehicle that crashes into the water is what not to do: Do not waste time trying to call 911 or another emergency number and do not bother trying to open the vehicle doors. Plan to exit via one of the vehicle’s windows, instead, and as quickly as possible. Most modern-day vehicles will retain accessory power for about 30 seconds or so, after which time occupants face having to break the windows open to escape.
To help keep calm during an obviously panicky situation, Dworkin recommends an easy-to-remember four-step checklist for how to escape from a sinking car:
Now, if you absolutely can't break the glass, it's still possible to learn how to escape from a sinking car, but it takes significant lung power: Eventually, once the vehicle fills with water, the pressure inside and outside of it will be equalized which should allow the doors to be opened.
In researching how to escape from a sinking car, Autobytel also turned up a wide range of other things to keep in mind, including: