How To Escape A Sinking Car

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How To Escape A Sinking Car

Last time, we talked about how to survive a car crash during disasters and crises and I showed you a few basic rules you need to follow when you bug out with your family. But when it comes to emergencies, you need to keep in mind that our plans, no matter how well organized and flexible, might fall through when least expected. That’s why it’s best to be prepared for nearly anything that could happen, including worst-case-scenarios that you might deem as impossible right now.

One of these worst-case-scenarios is being in a car that’s sinking in deep water. This is literally one of my worst nightmares that makes me wake up soaked in cold sweat. So, naturally, I looked up as much information as possible to get ready in the eventuality that, one day, some lunatic will force me to steer right to avoid a violent car crash… and I’ll end up in a lake or a river, trapped in my own car.



If it sounds paranoid, remember that it’s better to be safe than sorry. I think this is the one piece of advice you’d get from the ones who managed to escape a sinking car and got to keep living their lives together with their loved ones. So take a few minutes to read this article, it might save your life one day:

First of all, here’s what you should NEVER do if you’re trapped in a sinking car:



● Do not let panic take over

Panic is a natural reaction and it would be absurd to assume you can have complete control over it. After all, you’re in a car that’s about to drag you to the bottom of a lake or river. It’s absolutely normal to freak out. And that’s exactly what you need to keep in mind: that freaking out is normal, as long as you don’t let it take over your judgement.

Let the panic manifest, but don’t think about it. Think of your next moves, think of your escape plan. This will help you channel the adrenaline towards your survival instinct, not towards the panic.

● Don’t call 911

I know most survival manuals advise you to call 911 when confronted with an emergency situation, but this is not one of those cases. When you’re in a sinking car, you should spend every single second trying to get out. The faster, the better. Wasting time calling 911 will just slash your chances of survival.



● Don’t try to open the door

That will take too much effort and time. Try opening the window, instead. And if it doesn’t work, break it.

● Don’t sit and wait

There’s no time for sitting around and making a plan when you’re sinking. From the moment your car starts heading towards the water, you need to start working on your escape. Every second counts, so don’t waste any waiting for a hero to  come rescue you.

● Don’t leave kids behind

If there are kids with you in the car, once you open the windows, push them outside first. Start with the oldest and take the youngest kid with you when you make your way out the window. Don’t get out first thinking you’ll pull them out once you’re outside. You may never know what could happen and your kids will stay stuck inside.

Ok, now that you know the Big No-No’s, it’s time to show you the basic rules of escaping a sinking car.

#1: Minimize damage

As I showed you in the article about car crashes, the way you position your body before the impact is your damage measurement tool. If the crash catches you off guard, you’re likely to get severely hurt and not be able to make your way out of the car.

So here’s a reminder of how you need to position your body for minimizing injuries:

Your headrest must be right above your ears. Adjust it to the right position if it’s lower, otherwise, you may break your neck during the impact.

You must be at least six inches away from the wheel. Don’t lean down over it, because your chest will be vulnerable to serious injuries caused either by the wheel or by airbags.

Sit straight. If your muscles are contracted and your spine is straight, your body will be naturally protected against injuries. Remember that it’s better to get sore muscles than broken ribs and punctured lungs.

Keep your wrists straight, not bent. This will help you prevent wrist injuries such as carpal tunnel, which is quite painful and would prevent you from moving your arms and hands right. And that’s the last thing you want when your life is on the line.

Hold the wheel to the nine o’clock and three o’clock position. If you hold your hands to the ten o’clock and two o’clock position, the airbags might throw your arms in your face. Plus, this position will force you to keep your muscles contracted and, thus, protect your bones better.

#2: Undo seat belts

According to Professor Dr Gordon Geisbrecht — who specializes in cold water immersion — once the car has crashed in water, the first thing you need to do is undo your seat belt and then unbuckle the kids. Start with the oldest child, who can then help others.

You may have heard the exact opposite thing: that you should leave your seat belt on, so you can control your moves better and not get pushed away from the window when the water starts rushing in.

However, a stuck seat belt will prevent you from making a quick escape and, as I said before, every second matters. If you get pushed away from the window, the adrenaline will force you to make an extra effort to get back on the track. But if you’re dealing with a seat belt that you can’t get to open, your chances of survival plummet close to zero.

#3: Open the window as soon as you hit the water

Once the car is underwater, the electrical system dies. That’s why you need to be fast and open the window while it’s still working. You’ll have just a few seconds at your disposal, so use them wisely.

If the window doesn’t open, don’t go for the door. Break the window with whatever you’ve got on hand. I suggest keeping a “center punch” or a small hammer in the glove compartment. If not, use your foot. But be fast, don’t waste time trying to break the window using the same method over and over again. If one doesn’t work, try something else.

If you’re trying to break the window with an object, aim for the center. If you’ve got no sturdy objects around to break the window with and you’re using your foot, follow these rules, try to kick near the front of the window or along the hinges. However, if you’re wearing high heels, you should aim the center of the window.

But whatever you do, do not try to break the windshield. You’ll only waste your energy. Go for the side and rear windows if you want to save yourself and your family.

#4: Make your way out the window

As I said before, the first thing you need to do is push the kids out, as soon as you’ve broken the window. It doesn’t matter if they get scratched or cut while you push them through the borken window. That kind of injuries are easily treated.

Once they’re outside, take a last deep breath (if the car isn’t completely submerged, of course) and use every bit of strength you’ve got to push yourself against the water flow and out the window.

When you’re out of your car, help your kids swim to the surface and immediately look for something that floats that they can grab on.

It’s very difficult to escape a sinking car. You need to be very fast and know exactly what to do, so you don’t waste any second. But some managed to do it, so I’m confident that so can you, especially since now you know the most common mistakes you need to avoid and the basic rules that will help you and your family survive.

P.S. – a very important tip from Ronald Parks (thanks!) in the comments: If the car goes to the bottom and you have, even one or two feet of water over the top of the car, the air in the car will become pressurized. You can still breathe but if you take a big breath and go to the surface, the air in you lungs will expand and can burst the little air exchange sacks in your lungs. This over-expansion of the lungs can cause air embolism which will send small air bubble up to the brain causing what is essentially a stroke and almost immediate unconsciousness. This often fatal scenario can be easily prevented, however, by keeping the airway open during assent. The easiest and most natural way to do this is to make a low pitched low volume humming like noise while you ascend. You may feel like you are running out of air on the way up but you won’t. Remember, the air in your lungs is expanding so keep trying to make that hum. Your lungs can not over-expand if the airway is open and your airway cant be closed if you are making a sound. I hope you never need this info. If you’re a Scuba diver, (I am an instructor) you should already know what I have stated above (although you might not have thought of how it applies to a submerged car escape). I hope none of you ever need this tip but ,if you do, following it might well save your life. After this, you may see reports of a car that enteres the water where the driver and/or passenger escapes the vehicle only to slip below the water again and drown. Most often drowning is listed as the cause of death but it is unconsciousness due to air embolism that causes the drowning.


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13 Comments

  • By David, October 8, 2014 @ 16:43

    Really enjoyed this article, and it appears I will enjoy this site as well. Just showed me some things I was not aware of, especially to not try to open the door.

  • By dan miller, October 8, 2014 @ 17:45

    Thanks for the survival tips. Keep up the good work.
    dan

  • By Ronald Parks, October 8, 2014 @ 19:20

    There is one very important bit of information missing from this article. If the car goes to the bottom and you have, even one or two feet of water over the top of the car, the air in the car will become pressurized. You can still breath but if you take a big breath and go to the surface, the air in you lungs will expand and can burst the little air exchange sacks in your lungs. This over-expansion of the lungs can cause air embolism which will send small air bubble up to the brain causing what is essentially a stroke and almost immediate unconsciousness. This often fatal scenario can be easily prevented, however, by keeping the airway open during assent. The easiest and most natural way to do this is to make a low pitched low volume humming like noise while you ascend. You may feel like you are running out of air on the way up but you won’t. Remember, the air in your lungs is expanding so keep trying to make that hum. Your lungs can not over-expand if the airway is open and your airway cant be closed if you are making a sound. I hope you never need this info. If you’re a Scuba diver, (I am an instructor) you should already know what I have stated above (although you might not have thought of how it applies to a submerged car escape). I hope none of you ever need this tip but ,if you do, following it might well save your life. After this, you may see reports of a car that enteres the water where the driver and/or passenger escapes the vehicle only to slip below the water again and drown. Most often drowning is listed as the cause of death but it is unconsciousness due to air embolism that causes the drowning. Now you know!

  • By steve, October 9, 2014 @ 02:55

    Great article. Luck

  • By Frank, October 9, 2014 @ 01:52

    I too am a diver and the mention of humming if great, I usually blow bubbles in a free assent. I really like the hum, others can hear and remember, also that sound would give a bit of comfort to children.

    I work with a volunteer fire department and keep a small window breaking “hammer” under the seat, a cheap tool, plastic with a pointed metal spike on the hammer face.

    A flash light may also save your life, panic goes way down with light as opposed to working in the dark.

    If you come up in really cold water, you will have to force yourself to breathe. We tend to hold our breath in very cold water.

    Obviously, you will have to discuss this with all family members so they know what to do. Knowledge beats panic, panic comes from not knowing how to control the situation.

    I hope none of you need ever have to use this info.

  • By Drew Kreegel,MD, October 13, 2014 @ 03:36

    Good article. The seat belt buckle itself, as soon as it is unfastened, can be used to break the window once it is released. It will work If the length of the strap is of adequate length enough to hit the window hard enough. If not then allow it to retract fully then pull it out again slow enough so it does not lock as far as possible then strike the window. If the first strike is hard but doesn’t break try two more strikes as hard as possible. The previous strikes may weaken the structural integrity of the glass with micro-fractures enough so that the second or third strike is successful. The most common injury to the wrists in rapid deceleration (crash) accidents is fractures of wrist bones. Carpal tunnel syndrome would be a last and later developing problem to worry about. I’ve seen an alternative escape method that actually uses the opposite technique of rolling down the window just enough to allow the water gradually fill the inside compartment enough so to reduce the greater pressure of water against the door allowing the door to actually be opened. The here is that the huge force of inrushing water thru a suddenly full open window would overwhelm most people making escape much less likely. A criticism of this method is that it means waiting while the car is still slowly sinking and displacing precious air. Air embolism from decompression syndrome is unlikely to occur at the relatively shallow depths we are considering in this scenario but exhaling during the ascent to the surface is definitely recommended. Air embolism complications at these depths typically are not sudden and there and if high risk is suspected then the victim can be transported to a hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) chamber for treatment. By far the only goal and concern is GETTING OUT of the submerged vehicle and TO THE SURFACE.

  • By Ron Parks, April 22, 2015 @ 04:02

    Actually Air embolism from over-expansion of the lungs is quite possible at relatively shallow depths (even at 5 feet). The percentage change in air volume is greater as depth decreases. Volume change from 33 ft to surface is 1/2… from 33 ft to 66 ft it’s 1/3… from 66 to 99 ft it’s 1/4. In fact, divers have embolised when they were near the surface and were sucked up by a wave. I am not a Doctor so I bow to your superior medical knowledge but I am an ex-navy diver, a diving instructor, and was on the Florida underwater council team at the Key Biscayne chamber. The people who came to us with the bends ( or decompression sickness) could, except for the very worst cases have waited and survived. The embolism victims, on the other hand were normally much more critical or even DOA and ran the risk of lasting damage. Also hyperbaric chambers can be found in large cities (especially those in coastal areas) but are not in great supply in remote, inland areas. While one might be able to life flight a victim to the nearest chamber, flying reduces pressure even more and can further complicate the situation. I agree that getting to the surface is the number one goal but to say it’s the “only goal” …. I’d have to disagree with that.

  • By Dave, April 21, 2015 @ 21:22

    Thankfully I have never been in a sinking car, but I have thought about the scenario a lot over the years, and I hesitate to use my seatbelt for this very reason!

    First thing I would do if I realized the car was headed for the water is to hit both front power window buttons (down). Even if they stop working part way open, the glass will be a lot easier to kick out than if they are closed tight.

    Second, it might be wise to wait until the car comes to rest on the bottom before you decide which window to exit. You wouldn’t want to start to climb out, say the drivers window, then have the car settle on that side with you trapped under it!

    Hope this helps, Dave

  • By Adelina Franco, May 12, 2015 @ 21:10

    OH my goodness!!! I might be wrong, but I didn’t see anyone mention the rescue me tool sold at Galls.com!!!! I have one, there are videos on youtube that show how to use it. It can be stored on your keychain and it will cut through your seatbelt like butter and break your window so fast!!! I got one for myself and my husband. They aren’t even very expensive…like $6 bucks each.

  • By Rob, August 31, 2015 @ 14:42

    Most cars have engines in the front. When you see a car sinking it goes nose down, or front first. As a safety measure or DOT requirement, your back window is meant to break and shatter easier than a side window. Kick, punch or use safety tool/hammer on back window then exit.

  • By Brian, September 7, 2015 @ 08:53

    I would guess that, in a flowing river, it would be best to exit on the downstream side.

  • By Christian Soukup, June 2, 2016 @ 16:38

    Has anyone tested the punches or tools with tinted windows? I have after market film on my windows and I’m wondering if the window will still shatter.

    I awesome you can still shatter the front window since it can’t be tinted but that leaves you with only 1 window.

  • By Ange, July 25, 2016 @ 10:55

    Great article and comments, thank you. I never would have considered the bends at shallow depths. I was thinking about my own car and we have a sunroof which my kids could fit through. If not open then I think this could be a weak point to push out the whole frame if needed.

    I also have an auto survival kit which includes the T3 Tactical Tool which, among other items, has a seat belt cutter and a window punch. Might also be worth keeping some kind of discreet item or toy that floats so that kids have something to grab on to at the surface…

    My kids are approaching teenage years now so we can and do have emergency scenario discussions. But do you or any one of your great comment leavers have any special advice for those with babies or very young children who won’t understand breathing instructions? Would it still be best to try and force your way out of a window with water coming in while holding an infant (say you don’t have any older kids to help)?

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