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Surviving an auto emergency

What should you do if you're trapped in a submerged or overturned car? Follow these tips to keep your cool and get out of the vehicle to safety.
Daikusan/Getty Images
Daikusan/Getty Images

It ranks at, or near, the top of your worst nightmares of what can go wrong when driving. There your are,  tooling down the highway, when you misjudge a curve or lose control of your vehicle and plunge into a body of water.

Frightening? Yes! But the fact is, such incidents are a rarity. Data shows that less than one-half of 1 percent of all auto crashes involve submersion. Yet, it does happen, and the question is, how can you survive this harrowing experience?

In this situation, many people believe if they are wearing a seatbelt they will not be able to unbuckle it and will be trapped in the vehicle. Not true.

A seatbelt 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 akin to hitting a wall.)  If you were knocked unconscious you would be helpless. You wouldn’t have a chance to save yourself, let alone help anyone else. If you and any passengers are wearing seatbelts, chances of survival are much greater.

Rule 1: Don’t panic
Now, let’s talk about surviving. All experts agree that the first thing to do is stay calm, don’t panic. “That’s  easy for me to say because of my training, and I’m a good swimmer,” said Lt. Craig Richards of the Lacey Fire Department in Lacey, Wash. “But staying calm and helping any passengers to stay calm is the single most important thing you can do to survive a car sinking in water. Panic afterward, but not during.”

OK, you were wearing your seat belt so you have survived the worst part — the crash itself — and you haven’t panicked. What’s next? Richards says first unbuckle your seat belt; this allows freedom of movement. Then evaluate the situation. If you’re lucky, the vehicle is floating or sinking slowly, which should give you time to roll down the windows, get out and swim to safety.

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 become equal to the pressure outside.

“This may sound crazy,” says Richards, “but you need to let the vehicle sink further, wait until things settle. Let the vehicle fill up with more water before attempting to open a window or door.”

That’s because water rushing against a vehicle weighs thousands of pounds. Trying to open a door or window with that kind of pressure wastes valuable time and energy. And if you were successful, the onrush of water most likely would push you away, even pin you under the dash.

Richards and other safety-and-rescue experts state that the time to start rolling down the window is when the water is about halfway up the glass — about shoulder level. You may get a rush of water, but not enough to knock you away. Now is when you take a lungfull of air and swim up to safety, exhaling as you go.

And what about passengers in the vehicle? “Before you can save anyone else, you have to first save yourself,” Richards says. “In this case, 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.”

Power of the punch
But what if your vehicle has power windows, and the electric system shuts down when you hit the water and the windows are disabled? One solution that circulates is to store one of those heavy emergency tools in the vehicle. Not very useful if it’s in the trunk, or worse, whacking you in the head along with the umbrella that was lying on the rear floorboard.

Richards keeps a small tool called a “spring punch” in the door pocket of his pickup; his wife stows one in the center console of her sedan. Available at most auto parts stores, usually in an emergency kit, this device has a pointed end like a punch, and it’s forceful spring action will shatter automotive glass.

And what if he’s a passenger in someone else’s vehicle? “Hard to believe, but I carry a small piece of a ceramic insulator from a spark plug in my pocket.”

Richards is adamant that the piece of ceramic, held between finger and thumb and without a lot of force, will also shatter auto glass. “You’ll find this, or an entire insulator, in the personal kits carried on the job by many fire, rescue and police personnel. It works.”

Think being in a car that’s submerging in water can only happen on lonely stretches of intersates or two-lane rural roads? Wrong. Just ask 90-year-old Mary Martin who said she “put her foot on the accelerator by mistake” and crashed through a fence in August 2003, ending up in a retirement-community swimming pool in Manatee, Fla. An 80-year-old friend and neighbor dived in to help rescue her.

Then there’s Mimi Campanella. Enrolled in driver’s education with learner’s permit in hand, she was taking a driving lesson from her husband one afternoon last June. The lesson ended when she “overcompensated for an on coming car” and their Toyota Highlander SUV ended up in —  you guessed it — a backyard swimming pool in a Honolulu suburb. The couple got out safely.

Emergency essentials
Right up there with finding yourself sinking in water is the nightmare of crashing your vehicle over an embankment and ending up trapped and out of sight of passing motorists. However, with some forethought and common sense, you can increase your chances of survival significantly.

Many people prepare for driving in cold weather with a winter emergency kit but don’t give a second thought about everyday driving. And for those living in warm climates, well, most never give a third or fourth thought, let alone a second one, about preparing for such an incident.

The emergency items needed aren’t many, but they are vital — a small first-aid kit with supplies that stop severe bleeding, water, granola bars, a flashlight with extra batteries and a good Swiss Army-type pocket knife. Because of space limitations, you may have to stow the items in separate locations. But they need to be easily accessible to the driver and front seat passenger, they won’t do you any good if they are in the trunk.

And don’t forget to take Lt. Richards’ advice. Keep a spring punch handy; you may need to break a car window for escape.

Don’t put your trust in contacting help via a cell phone; cell coverage is not a 100 percent guarantee. For that reason, a good investment is a $50 portable CB radio. While the channel 9 emergency network is just about history, most truckers and hardcore fans still use CB radios.

If you are planning an extended trip, prepare for the unexpected. Select your route carefully and if it is an unfamiliar one, study it on a map ahead of time. Let others know your route, the time you are leaving and an estimated time of arriving. If you don’t show up, there is a reference for beginning a search.

That takes care of the forethought list. Now the common-sense thing — have your seat belt buckled. Just like a crash into water, the seat belt is your first line of defense if you are suddenly careening down an embankment.

Presence of mind
In nightmares, events are often played out in slow motion. In real life, they are usually over with before you realize it. If by chance you have the presence of mind when you find yourself hurtling downwards, hold on to the steering wheel and move your thumbs to the outside. With a death grip on the wheel, severe jerks often break thumbs.

Like sinking in water, experts emphasize staying calm. Clear thinking can mean the difference between life and death.

After the vehicle comes to a stop, turn the ignition off to help prevent electrical shorts that could cause a fire. Next, assess your injuries. It is important to stop severe bleeding, which can lead to unconsciousness. If you detect the odor of gasoline, get out of the vehicle as quickly as possible and move to a safe distance away.

Added to this nightmarish drama is the possibility of the vehicle rolling over on its top and you are upside down, your weight pushing on the seat belt and blood rushing to your head. Again, don’t panic, there is a way to get out of this predicament.

Ricas Safety Training, a private safety-consulting firm in Holland, teaches the following procedure to students: First, you extend your left arm out and push against the roof, which keeps you from crashing headlong downward into the roof when the belt is unhooked. With your arm still braced against the roof, you next bend your knees and place your feet at either side of the steering wheel on the dash.

The final step is to push with your legs, so that your body is squeezed back firmly into the seat, taking weight off the belt. Now, bend your head down, tucking your chin in toward your chest (to avoid possible neck injury), and with your free hand, release the buckle. If you’ve done it right, you can smoothly roll down and climb out the side window.

Hopefully, your pre-planning, common sense and a resistance to panic will allow you to place a call for help. If you are trapped in the vehicle and can’t get out on your own, and are unable to reach someone on the cell phone or CB radio, the availability of water and nutrition are major assets in staying alive until help arrives.

You have just learned how you can increase your chances of surviving if your vehicle is submerged in water or has crashed over the side of a road. You need to always be thinking about what you would do if either of these accidents happen to you. You have the ability to survive. Make sure you are buckled up and stay in control.

Larry Hall writes about cars and the automotive industry from his home in Olympia, Wash.