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Need-to-know-steps on how to escape from a sinking car

Updated on August 26, 2010

Every four hours a car goes into the water

Many people believe that they will never find themselves in the position of being caught in a submerged vehicle, the idea never crosses their mind. However, a car goes into the water every four hours in the United States and each year more than three hundred people become trapped in their cars under water and experience a terrifying death. And it can happen to you too; you can never predict when you'll swerve to miss an animal, hit an icy patch, get distracted by something in or outside your car, or have mechanical difficulties that will cause your car to leave the road.

But as in most life-threatening situations, keeping your wits and knowing what to do gives you the best chances for survival. Experts all say the best solution is to have a plan already figured out, so make a plan early on and share it with family and passengers. It can help save your life and your kids’ if this worst-case scenario happens to you.

But first of all… don't panic ! When you panic your brain can’t function right in an emergency situation. Keep a cool head and follow these steps.

The water is filling your car...
The water is filling your car...
Your life hammer in an easy-to-reach area...
Your life hammer in an easy-to-reach area...
Cut your jammed safety belt with your life hammer...
Cut your jammed safety belt with your life hammer...

How to survive a sinking car

Life hammer tool may save your life !

12 steps to get out of your car safely

  1. Get out before the car goes under.
  2. Secure a window-breaking device or life hammer in an easy-to-reach area. They will easily cut through a jammed seatbelt and shatter a side or rear car window. Don't stash an unsecured hammer under the seat. It can injure you if the car rolls or you can’t reach it once you’re in the water.
  3. Survival experts recommend keeping your seatbelt on until the last possible second. Otherwise, the rush of water could disorient and possibly injure you.
  4. Immediately unlock doors, roll down windows or sunroof. A door opens when the water is above your knees, but as it descends this option is gone.
  5. If you haven’t already, turn the headlights as well as the interior lights on. They help rescuers locate your vehicle and you have better view. Don’t turn off your engine ! It will probably turn off the lights, switch off the electric windows and there’s a likely change that you accidentally lock the doors.
  6. Try to open the side windows once your car hits the water. Remember that even though submerged the power windows will still work for around 2 minutes or so. If the windows are still above the waterline, just climb out.
  7. The car won't sink immediately, even with the windows open, however you must use every moment to free yourself and passengers and get out. Push children out first. Place one of them on top of the roof while helping the other child. The car will float for a few more minutes so you’ll have some time.
  8. Open the window quickly, if you can't get out fast enough. The idea here is to get the pressure inside the car equal to the pressure outside the car. Water exerts greater pressure than air and if you are in a car full of air, you'll never get a door open. You won't be able to get the door open easily, but you can likely climb out the window.
  9. Opening the windows helps the water flow in faster, which gives you a better chance of escaping before your car sinks too deep.
  10. If windows don't open, let water partially fill the car and break the window; aim the breaker on a low corner. Keep your seat belt buckled until the window shatters. As water rushes in, it could toss you from your seat. If you then hit your head against the seat or dashboards, it could knock you unconscious.
  11. If you are unable to open a window, there is the equalization option as a last resort. Keep your head. There should be enough air for the minute or two that it will take to prepare to escape. Once the pressure equalizes you will be able to open the door, it may still be hard to get it opened far enough for you to get out. If needed brace yourself and push on the door with your legs until it opens. Keep in mind it may open slowly. Don't strain yourself and waste energy trying to open any doors before the water pressure equalizes. If you need to wait for the car to fill with water and you have a small child with you putting the child on your shoulders will keep them above the water and in the air pocket for a long time.
  12. Then of course, there’s the possibility of the vehicle rolling over on its top. You’re upside down and your weight’s pushing on the seat belt and blood’s rushing to your head. First thing to do is to 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.

Special warning

  • Air will escape the car from all kinds of places. Don't rely on surviving by breathing inside that air bubble you see in the movies !
  • Do not attempt to break the front windshield as it is laminated and almost impossible to break. You’ll only strain yourself unnecessary.
  • Crawl out the back side window if the car nose-dives.
  • Recognize that whichever end of the car the engine is in will sink faster. The depth and current of the water may cause the car to flip over on its roof.
  • Keep an eye on the condition of your tires. Hydroplaning is a major cause of accidents like this.
  • Unless there is another person in the car that you are trying to save, you should never go back into a sinking or submerged vehicle. There is nothing, short of saving another person that is worth the risk. Computers, phones, purses, jewelry can be replaced - you can't ! They'll probably still be there when your car is recovered anyway.
  • If you’re a passenger in someone else’s vehicle, always carry a small piece of a ceramic insulator from a spark plug in your pocket. Held between finger and thumb and without a lot of force, it will also shatter auto glass.
  • Practice with your children in the car. They will have fun, and you will be ready so that you are not one of those that drown each year due to panic when this happens to them.

Now you have learned how you can increase your chances of surviving if your vehicle is submerged in water. In the mean time drive as safely as possible, buckle up, pay attention and avoid distractions while driving. And remember… you have the ability to survive so stay calm - stay safe !


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    • Joni Douglas profile image

      Joni Douglas 

      8 years ago

      Excellent advice. You never know when you will need info like this. Thanks for sharing.

    • GKHERA99 profile image


      8 years ago

      An excellent writeup. Keep it up.

    • AEvans profile image


      8 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      I didn't know a spark plug insulator would work I will certainly carry these things just in case, it is always good to be prepared because you honestly do not know what could possibly happen or if it could happen top you. It scares me to even think about it but thank you for the valuable information. :)


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