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How to Escape from a Submerged Vehicle

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Photo: jyllish

Maybe you’re playing The Worst-Case Scenario board game and you start mentally enacting the steps needed to extricate yourself from a car that’s underwater. Maybe this is just one of those freaky scenarios your subconscious brings to mind from time to time just for the sake of “what if.” But seriously, what is the safest, most effective way to exit a vehicle if it becomes submerged in water? Here are some “do”s and “don’t”s to keep in mind if you should ever encounter this serious situation.


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Man on cell phone in car

Don’t

  • Get on your phone to call 911, a friend, or a family member. Seriously—any outside help most likely will arrive on the scene too late.
  • Stay buckled in. (You’ll need an unfettered limbs to escape the vehicle!)
  • Forget to help young children unbuckle their seatbelts.
  • Open the door. Water will flood in, causing the vehicle to sink at a faster rate. According to Malia Wollan, contributor with The New York Times, submerged vehicles incur the highest fatality rates of all single-motor-vehicle incidents, causing 400 deaths annually in North America.

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An auto emergency tool like this one is the most effective way to escape from an underwater vehicle.
Photo: The Grommet

Do

  • Stay calm, but act quickly. As Wollan articulated, survival odds are highest if you get out in the first 60 seconds after your vehicle hits the water.
  • Unbuckle yourself then immediately unbuckle young passengers (if you have any).
  • Roll down your window and climb out, preferably onto the vehicle’s roof, if possible. If you have children with you, make sure to lift them out of the window before you make your own escape. Wollan advised pushing the oldest children through the window first.
  • If you’re unable to open your window, use a glass-breaking tool that you should keep in your vehicle for such emergencies. Brett and Kate McKay, contributors with The Art of Manliness, recommend investing in a Lifehammer gadget or other auto rescue tool.
  • If you find yourself without a sharp object in your vehicle, your best chance for breaking out is to wrap your hand/arm in a protective layer of fabric and use your fist or elbow to smash the window. Aim for the corner of the window, as the McKays advised. Use this method as a final resort, however, since it’s seldom effective, considering that vehicle windows are typically made of strong, tempered glass.

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Sources: The New York Times, The Art of Manliness