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Sinking feeling: Escape from a submerged car

2015-02-06 08:53

LIFE-SAVING TIPS: Staying calm, waiting for the pressure to equalize.. following Arrive Alive’s tips could mean the difference between life and death. Image: Shutterstock

Picture this - you're driving over a low- level bridge when a flash-flood hits, the force of the water causes your vehicle to plummet and become submerged, you're vehicle's rapidly filling with water...

Would you know what to do? How to save yourself and your family?

This article from Arrive Alive lists what to expect in the event of a vehicle submersion and how to escape if you’re unfortunate enough to be in one.

What to expect if your vehicle sinks:

The speed at which a car will sink depends on several factors, including the distance of the fall, speed, angle of entry and the physical characteristics of the vehicle.
Most crashes into water are smooth with the water cushioning the blow. Most people survive the initial impact with minimal or no injuries at all.
If you remain calm you should have sufficient time for you to take action to save your life and the lives of your passengers.
Modern vehicles that have great insulation will likely be better at keeping water out.
Most vehicles will float for a minute or two before beginning to sink. Cars usually sink at an angle, with the weight of the engine pulling down the front whereas a rear-engined car sinks boot-first.
It is possible that the vehicle might roll onto its roof in deeper water.
In a car that sinks front-first, there will be a bubble of air in the rear, but you should stay in the front as the windows are often larger and easier to climb out of.

1 Staying calm saves lives

Experts agree that before you leap into action you should take a few deep breaths and calm yourself down.
Making educated decisions could mean the difference between life and death. If you panic you’re unable to think clearly and won't be able to save yourself. Staying calm and helping passengers to stay calm is one of the most important thing you can do to survive a car sinking in water.

2 What about my seat belt?

Many people fear that if they are wearing a seat belt they will not be able to unbuckle it and will be trapped in the vehicle. A seat belt is designed for quick release, and without it there is nothing to hold you in place, nothing to keep your head from slamming into the steering wheel or dashboard (Hitting water at speed is comparable to hitting a wall.

Your first instinct may be to unbuckle your seat belt and try to escape but experts warn that passengers should first check their surroundings. You want to make sure the impact is over before you take off your seat belt. This might include the possibility of other cars or foreign objects heading toward the vehicle.

3 Opening windows/doors in a sinking vehicle

Once a vehicle sinks it may turn sideways or upside down. Occupants who are not buckled in with a seat belt will float within the vehicle and can easily become disoriented. It then becomes extremely difficult for them to find the windows or door handles.

If you remain in a seated position (as you will if your seat belt remains fastened) you will retain your orientation regardless of what position the vehicle is in. In some instances, the vehicle will sink quickly and you won’t have time to roll down the windows. Again, stay calm, unbuckle your seat belt and check on passengers.


If you are sinking rapidly, you need to wait for the water pressure inside the vehicle to equalise.

Even though it might sound strange, it might be best to let the vehicle sink further and wait until things settle. Let the vehicle fill up with more water before attempting to open a window or door. This is because water rushing against a vehicle weighs thousands of kilograms, trying to open a door or window with that kind of pressure wastes valuable time and energy.
When you are ready to open a door, the recommendation is to always choose a door on the side away from the water flow. It's much easier to open a door on the down river side of flowing water.

Once you have escaped via the door or an open window the next best thing might be the roof of the vehicle and to consider from there the safest way of moving to safety.
Equip yourself with a few necessities

If the door does not open and the window does not turn down you might have to break the window. This might be easier said than done - automotive windows are made of tempered glass which is extremely strong. It takes a concentrated force against a very small area of the glass to shatter it.

Once you reach the surface, take a few seconds to get your bearings, and if you have the swimming skills, take a deep breath and go back down. Hopefully, you can help someone else escape.


Arrive Alive said: "It may seem obvious - but don't try to save anything except lives. Computers, phones, purses, jewellery, etc. can be replaced - you can't. What about passengers in the vehicle? Before you can save anyone else, you have to first save yourself.

"Unless there is another person in the car that you are trying to save, you should never go back into a sinking or submerged vehicle. There is nothing, short of saving another person that is worth the risk.
"You and your passengers need to focus on one goal only and that is: “Exit the car as quickly as possible.”

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