How to Escape From a Car in Water

A car sinking in water is a dangerous scenario. In order to escape successfully, you must stay calm, stay focused, and know what to do ahead of time.

Conor Fynes
How to Escape From a Car in Water

Finding yourself in a sinking car is a nightmare situation that can end fatally, but there are ways to escape such a scenario. Getting into any car accident can be a scary and stressful event. One of the most frightening is being trapped in a sinking car. No matter what the circumstances were that got you into the water in the first place, a sinking car scenario leaves little room for hesitation or panic. According to the U.S. National Highway and Transportation Administration, approximately 400 people lose their lives in the U.S. annually by drowning in vehicles. Sadly, many of these deaths might have been prevented in the place of proper protocol and planning in advance.

In this article, Method 1 describes how to get out of the car before it’s under water and Method 2 explains how to escape from the car when it’s already submerged.

Method 1 of 2: How to get out before the car is fully submerged

This method is your best chance for survival. By thinking and acting quickly, you can execute these steps and get out fast.

Step 1: Brace for impact. Once you realize that your car is going into the water, brace yourself. Place each hand on the wheel, at “nine” and “three” respectively. Be prepared for the airbag to go off. Remain calm.

Step 2: Open a window ahead of time if possible. As soon as possible, roll down your window, before you even touch the water if you can. It will be much easier to open now than when your car starts to sink.

Step 3: Focus on getting out quickly. Don’t call 911 yet! They will not get there in time to help; you will have to get yourself out. Getting out should be your first priority.

Stay focused, don’t panic, and move quickly. Your best option is to get out while your car remains floating if at all possible.

Step 4: Unbuckle your seat belt. Undoing seat belts is the first thing you should remember to do once in the water. First unbuckle yourself, then any children, oldest first.

Step 5: If you haven’t already, open a window. Don’t open a door! Water will rush in if you do, and your car will sink much faster.

Instead, make every effort to open a window as this is your best way out. Most electric windows will work after the impact with the water, so try the power window button first.

If there’s no success with the power window buttons, you can smash the windows open with your detachable headrest. Failing that, you may try kicking them out. It’s also a good idea to have a glass- or window-breaking tool, such as a center punch, in your car or on a key ring.

You also can remove a headrest from one of the seats and then use the prongs to try and break the window, or even just use a heavy object that you happen to have in the car. With these, you should be aiming to hit at the middle of the window.

If nothing else, you can try to kick the window and break it with your feet by aiming at the breakpoints, which are located at the hinges or toward the front end of the window.

Don’t try to break the windshield; it will be too thick to break. Rear or side windows are your best option.

Step 6: Attend to any children first. If there are any other passengers in the vehicle, helping them should be your next immediate concern.

If they are children, it’s good to get the eldest unbuckled first; they are more capable to help you with the younger ones. Making sure everyone is unbuckled and lending a quick word of assurance will get your successful escape in motion.

If the child is unable to swim, you or another adult passenger will need to accompany that child out of the car.

Step 7: Get out and get on top of the car. Once any children are out of the car, pull yourself out as quickly as possible. Be prepared for water to be coming in through the window as you do so. This may take some extra strength, but you can do it.

Once you get through the windows, it’s a matter of swimming to the surface. Take a large breath of air and plug your nose as you make it through, keeping your oxygen saved for the trip upwards.

Although it’s natural to panic and rush to the top, it’s still every bit as important to remain calm on your way up. The frenzy to the surface may tire you out or put you in shock, and you should still be ready to help other passengers should they need it.

If possible, get on top of the car for support. If the car is still floating, you can use this time to catch your breath before moving forward.

Step 8: Decide where to go from here. Taking your circumstances into consideration, you will need to decide whether to stay on the car or swim for it. Keep the weather and the water temperature in mind when deciding what to do next.

If the water is shallow enough for the top of the car to rest above its surface, the water may be shallow enough for you to stand, making it easier to get to shore. However, if it is cold outside, you may want to stay where you are. If the water is deep and your car is still sinking, you will need to prepare to swim for the water’s edge, and you will need to do so quickly if the water is cold.

Step 9: Call 911. Whether you are staying on the car or have gotten to the water’s edge, now is the time to get help. If any phones have survived the water, call 911. Otherwise, flag down a passing motorist and ask him or her to call for you.

It’s important to enlist medical help immediately. This is an absolute must, whether or not you feel any symptoms at the time. If the water was cold, you could be in the early stages of hypothermia. Getting quick and timely help for you and the other passengers will nip any lingering problems.

Method 2 of 2: Getting out after the car is submerged

In the event that your car sinks very quickly or you are not able to open or beak a window, performing this method can increase your chances of getting out safely.

Step 1: Do NOT undo any seat belts. In this situation, you want to tether yourself to the car so that you will more easily be able to open a door once it is full of water.

Remain calm and still and take several deep, slow breaths until the water reaches your chin and then hold your breath.

Step 2: Wait until the pressure equalizes and open a door. The pressure within and outside of the car will equalize around when you hold your breath. At this point, get a door open.

Step 3: Unbuckle your seat belt. Hold on to the steering wheel as an anchor, then unbuckle your seat belt.

Step 4: Pull yourself out and swim to the surface. Grab onto the door latch, let go of the wheel, and heave yourself out through the open door. Continue to hold your breath in your lungs and use this to help you float toward the surface if you’re unsure which direction is up.

Once you know where to go, swim as fast as you can in that direction, watching for any obstacles or debris in the water.

Step 5: Swim to safety and call for help. Once at the surface, you can decide which way is best to swim. Then, once you have reached dry land, you can call 911 or flag someone down to do it for you.

As with the previous method, you will need to attend to any children in the car first. Tell them to hold their breath when it’s time, help them get through the door quickly, and direct or pull them toward the surface. They may need extra assistance swimming to safety.

Having a mental plan to fall back on if you’re ever in a sinking car could mean the difference between life and death. While you’re at it, you should educate regular passengers on a quick plan for the worst case scenario. It’s both hopeful and fortunately likely you’ll never need to use it. Keep these tips in mind, keep calm, and keep focused, and you can make it out.

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