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Submerged Vehicles: How Not to Die

How long can you hold your breath? A minute? Maybe a little longer?

That’s about how long you have to get out of a car that’s sinking underwater.

After a minute trapped in a car underwater without oxygen, you will begin to lose consciousness, your body will spasm, and you will drown.

A minute is not a lot of time to make an escape if you are in a car that somehow ends up in a lake or river. That’s one of the reasons why hundreds of people in the U.S. die every year in submerged vehicles. As a Dive-Rescue Specialist on the Milwaukee Fire Department, I’ve seen it happen far too often. People have no idea what to do, they panic, and they drown.

I remember finding a young couple in their car fifteen feet underwater in the river downtown. They both had their mobile phones gripped in their hands. They had called 911. They were dead by the time we found them.

One lesson to be learned here is that, if your vehicle is sinking underwater, your cell phone won’t save you — you simply do not have time to call 911. You need those precious seconds to get yourself out alive.

Our Dive Team prides itself on its rapid response time. If an accident scene is nearby, we can get there and get divers underwater within three minutes of catching an alarm. That’s pretty damn fast, but do the math — tragically, that’s often not fast enough — and our rescue efforts then become a body recovery operation.

So you need a plan that you can act on as soon as your car hits the water. This plan is much like the one you would use if you’re trapped inside a burning vehicle. The plan is called “S.W.O”. It stands for “Seatbelt, Window, Out”. Basically that means get the seatbelts off you and your passengers, get a window open, and climb out of the window.

It’s a simple plan, which I like — it makes it easy to remember — even on an icy winter night when your car spins off the road and ends up in a murky river. If you follow this plan, you can get out of a sinking vehicle in less than thirty seconds.

But things can get tricky — so let me break this escape plan down for you so you know what to do before your car hits the water:

Step 1: Seatbelt. Unbuckle or cut the seatbelts off you and your passengers.

You’d be surprised how many drowning victims we’ve found who were still strapped in their seatbelts. That’s because suddenly being underwater in a sinking car is so shocking and mind-boggling. Many people who have survived this ordeal have told me they couldn’t believe or comprehend what was happening. One minute they were driving down the road, the next minute they were upside down, freezing cold, completely disoriented, and unable to breathe. They didn’t even realize at first that they were in the water. Something as simple as unbuckling their seatbelts did not even occur to them.

Add to this the reality that a seatbelt might be jammed or difficult to find in a banged-up car and this first step can get complicated. It helps to have a rescue tool handy that can cut seatbelt straps if need be. I recommend the Lifeline tool. It safely cuts through seatbelts in a second. It’s also an excellent tool for breaking windows – which I’ll cover in the next step.

Step 2: Window. Roll down or break a window.

Wasting time and energy trying to force open the door of a sinking vehicle is a fatal mistake that too many victims have made. Keep in mind that you will not be able to open your car door as it is submerging underwater. The pressure of the water outside your vehicle will make opening the door nearly impossible.

Some articles you read will tell you to wait until your car’s interior fills up with water because the pressure on the inside and outside of the vehicle will equalize and you will then be able to open the door. I do not recommend this except as a last resort.

It is far safer to get out of a window before the car sinks too deep and before you run out of air to breathe. (Please don’t count on some convenient pocket of air near the roof of the car to breath from like you see in the movies).

Most vehicles today have electric windows. Water will usually short out a car’s electrical system within a few minutes, so try rolling your window down ASAP. It may still be functioning, but if not, you’ll need to break the glass.

Vehicle windows are made of highly tempered glass. They are very difficult to break unless you have the right tool. The Lifeline rescue tool has a pointed hammerhead that will break a car window with one strike. Hit the glass with this tool in one of the lower corners of the window. The tempered glass will spiderweb and shatter into small gravel-sized pieces. If there is already water on the outside of the car window it will come rushing in when you break the glass – so be ready for that.

Step 3: Out. Everyone escapes through the window – children first.

If there are kids in the car, guide them out of the window first. Hang onto them while you follow them out. Air bubbles rise, so If you are not sure which way is up, take a look at where the air bubbles are going.

You probably won’t have to swim far; most submerged vehicles are within twenty feet from land. Once on the surface, keep everyone close and make your way to shore.

Calling 911: Once you make it to land you can call 911. Remember, you do not have time to call before that — you’ll need every second to make your escape. Like I said, if you are in a car that is sinking underwater you have only about a minute to make it out alive.

That’s why I recommend that you keep a rescue tool like the Lifeline in your vehicle at all times. Also, run through the S.W.O plan a few times. Think it through step-by-step so that you have the plan in your head before your car ends up in the water.

Seatbelt, Window, Out – It’s not complicated, it’s not expensive, and it really could save the lives of you and your loved ones.

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11 thoughts on “Submerged Vehicles: How Not to Die”

  1. This is very good advice. However most
    People can’t swim or at least half don’t
    Swim. The biggest fright is the water coming
    In so fast. I would like to practice in the
    Swimming pool with a bucket seat with
    Seat belt attached. Push me off of the
    Diving board of course have a couple of
    Spotters in the pool just in case the splash
    Is too unexpected and exciting. You will
    Be surprised how many family and friends
    Panic and try to swim with the seatbelt
    Attached. Your Spoters have to be quick
    To unhook them. Before they drown. It
    Takes 3 or 4 try’s before they get the hang
    Of the surprise situation.

  2. Excellent topic. Valid points to keep in mind. You have to mentally prepare yourself. Ask yourself questions. What would I do if?

  3. Great planning information. Simple is easy to remember. Being prepared is key. Any different information for moving water ie. river flooding???