What to Do If Your Car Plunges Into Water
Think and act fast to increase your chance of surviving
In March, an 18-month-old girl survived a horrific ordeal: Her mother’s car crashed and flipped upside down into a frigid Utah river. Rescue officials said the mother, 25-year-old Lynn Jennifer Groesbeck, was likely killed on impact. But her daughter, Lily, survived 14 hours in freezing temperatures while strapped in her car seat, which was upside down. The car was partially submerged in water but did not sink because it got stuck on rocks.
If you’ve ever wondered what you should do if your car plunges into a body of water, read on. Even though the chances of this happening to you are truly remote — less than one-half of one percent of all auto crashes involve a car that becomes submerged in water, according to the National Safety Council — it does occur. Use these three tips to help ensure your survival.
1. Invest in auto escape tools. Be prepared ahead of time by buying a rescue tool, aka emergency tool, that includes a seat-belt slicing feature and a window breaking feature, Jackson says. “Some are even small enough to be added to a key chain, which is an ideal place to keep it.” You can find them online. Also consider buying a “spring punch” tool, available at most auto parts stores. These have a pointed end to shatter glass. Or simply keep a hammer in your glove compartment. Keep in mind that your front windshield will be more difficult to shatter than your back or side windows.
2. Remember the acronym SCDO. This stands for Seatbelts, Children, Doors, Out, says Avi Goldstein, a New York City paramedic and owner of StatGear, a company that manufactures survival and rescue tools. Remove your seatbelt right away, help your kids unbuckle theirs, open the windows or doors as fast as possible and get out. “Even if your electric windows stop working, you should be fine opening the door to your car provided your car isn’t totally submerged,” he says. “The difficulty of opening a door when your car is submerged comes into play when there’s air in the car and the car is surrounded by water. In that situation, the water pressure makes opening the door extremely difficult." So get out fast.
Justin Jackson (also known as “Just in Case Jack”) echoes that sentiment. Jackson runs Skilled Survival, a website that offers tips and tools for surviving a variety of disasters. “Vehicles will typically float for 30 seconds or more before enough water enters to take it fully under,” he says. “Your car doors can be opened initially, or you’ll have a little longer on windows, but you want to get out as fast as possible before the car sinks.”
3. When all else fails, wait it out. As stressful as this may seem, some experts advocate staying in the vehicle and letting it sink to the bottom of the body of water you’ve driven into. This may be your only option if you miss the window of opportunity during which you can still open the door or window on the car's way down. “The idea here is that you let the car fill up with water and then escape once the water pressure inside and outside equalize,” Jackson says. “Until this occurs the doors to the vehicle will be impossible to open.”
The trouble with this strategy: You may not know how deep the body of water is. “Also, you must wait until the car is nearly full of water before the doors will open, leaving little air to breathe.” If you didn't manage to escape while the car was still sinking, though, it's good to know that you'll get a second chance to open the door after the pressure equalizes. Just keep your wits about you, open the door and swim to the surface.