Right Driver

How to escape from a car that’s sinking

Several thousand people die every year around the world in cars that are submerged. It’s more common that you would imagine and cars sinking in water happens for a number of reasons:

  • The bridge is out, and the driver doesn’t see it, or it fails with vehicles on it
  • The car gets swept away in a flood
  • The driver tries to drive across a swollen ford or river
  • The driver inadvertently drives into a flooded area (these are particularly hard to see at night)
  • The car rolls down a bank into a lake or river because the handbrake fails
  • The driver accidentally drives into a lake or river from a road or parking area (e.g. puts it in reverse instead of forward)
  • A car crash results in the car entering a lake or river

What happens to your car when it hits the water?

If you’re travelling at speed when you hit the water, you won’t skim across the surface, you’ll come to a rapid stop. If you’re trying to cross a swollen river or your car rolls into water then it will start to float until it begins to fill up with water. Assuming the windows are up, you’ve got a minimum of 30 seconds to get out. The engine will weigh the front down first, and it will begin to sink more and more rapidly with the bonnet going under first.

How should you get out of a submerged car?

A flood sign might not have been put up if it's a flash flood

If you’ve driven into raging floodwaters or a fast-flowing river, getting out of the car exposes you to another type of danger: being swept away. But, at least you will have a chance to get out of the river as opposed to drown in the car. In a flash flood, authorities may not have had time to put signs up. You will need to be careful when approaching fords and known flood hot spots especially at night when it can be difficult to see the water.

If you are in relatively still water, you have a high chance of surviving if you can get out before the car goes under the water.

Panicking will reduce your survival chances, so follow these very simple rules.

  1. Undo your seat belt
  2. Help everyone else undo theirs
  3. Open the window. Electric windows will work for a short time even if under water, but if they don’t, elbow or kick in the centre of the side window; don’t try to do this to the windscreen as it’s toughened. Don’t open the door because water will rush in.
  4. Get any children out by pushing them ahead of you
  5. Get out and get to shore as quickly as you can. If you’re not a confident swimmer than you should remove your shoes and jacket, but don’t delay actually getting out of the car.

The priority is to get out as quickly as possible before the water pressure makes it difficult for you to get out. If you wait until the car is submerged then the pressure of the water on the windows will make it impossible for you to roll them down, and the pressure on the doors will make it impossible for you to open them.

Don’t try to bring anything with you and do not try to make an emergency call while you are under water – by the time emergency services arrive you will have drowned. If the rear windows don’t open you’ll need to get people out of the front windows. If you have more than one child in the car, get the oldest one out first and the youngest out last.

Don’t wait until the car is filled up with water as it reduces your chances of survival to less than 10%.

If you are initially trapped in floodwaters, the car can be tossed around and the water will be murky. Keep a hold of the door handle to maintain your orientation as to where the window is and look for the direction of air bubble to determine where the surface is. Bear in mind you should never try to cross water that is more than 30 cm deep, especially if it’s moving.

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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