How to survive in a sinking car

Whether it’s because of a severe storm causing floods or due to a bridge collapse, cars can go off the road and into the water — especially when the streets and highways are slippery. Would you know what to do if your car was sinking? Here are some tips on how to get out alive.

Sinking Car

1. Avoid flooded areas

Sure, it sounds like common sense, but many people put themselves in danger by driving on to flooded streets. According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, even 6 inches of water can
reach the bottom of most passenger cars, possibly causing stalling and an overall lack of control. Then, just a foot of water will float many vehicles, while two feet of rushing water can have
enough strength to carry away most vehicles — including SUVs and pick-up trucks.

2. Wear your seatbelt

This should go without saying, but you can’t get yourself out of a sinking car if you’ve been knocked unconscious because you weren’t wearing your belt.

3. Don’t panic

Even if your car is going underwater, keep it together. You need to save your strength and brainpower for escape, and panic uses a great deal of energy. Take deep breaths and think methodically.
For example, unlock the doors and try to roll down the window, and don’t forget to take off your seatbelt before you attempt to swim through the window.

4. Keep your head above water

To keep your head above the water, you might need to go into the back seat — the front of the car will likely sink first due to the weight of the engine.

Lifehammer - car sinking safety

5. Separate myth from reality

Unless the car has been severely damaged, you usually have more time to escape than you think — at least a few minutes. That’s because your battery does not short out the moment you hit the water,
as often seen in TV. The car battery typically takes several minutes to stop working, which means you may still be able to roll down the window or open the sunroof using the electronic buttons.
(See how leaving the car ignition on and opening the sunroof helped to save relatives of SheKnows editor Nancy.)

6. Wait for some water

If you’re going to have to break out, wait for the car to fill with some water. There needs to be somewhat equal pressurization in order to open a door or window, otherwise the force against the
door will make it impossible to move. Wait until the water comes about up to your sternum and take a deep breath — you’ll be swimming out.

7. Use the right tools

If your car is sinking or flooded, don’t waste your time trying to break the window with anything except a centerpunch, hammer or screwdriver. Kicking — even with steel-toed boots — and using
multi-tools (such as a Leatherman) often won’t do a thing because of the
special safety glass installed in windows.

If you don’t keep a tool in the car especially for this purpose, just try using something sharp — nothing blunt will do the job, and you will simply expend too much energy. (I keep a tool similar
to the Life Hammer — shown above — in my vehicle, which is specifically
designed to break car windows easily, as well as to cut through seatbelts.)

Even when the car is full of water, don’t bother trying to smash the windshield — it’s laminated and is incredibly tough to break (despite the fact that little pebbles can crack it at freeway
speeds). Try the side windows instead, and aim to hit them in one of the upper corners.

8. Don’t phone for help until you’re out

If your car is sinking, you don’t have time to wait for the police or an ambulance for a rescue. Just assume that you’re on your own.

Remember that opening or breaking a window or sunroof is key to your survival, and the number one objective is to get you and your passengers to safety. Forget your purse, your paperwork, your
priceless Van Gogh in the trunk — just get out and go.

More flood, disaster and safety resources


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