NOTE: This is a story I ran in the Gazette this past weekend. It contains one of those bits of advice you see in a newspaper that it’s easy to bounce right over and ignore. But if your car ever did go in the water, you’d be glad you read this professor’s advice and got one of these devices. I am buying several for my wife, self and kids.
By Douglas Imbrogno | Charleston Gazette | May 13, 2012
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — John Damron’s tragic death after his car plunged in the Kanawha River on April 29 was possibly due to a medical condition, although autopsy results have yet to be released.
But the frightening specter of driving one’s car into water through a missed turn, accident or flash flooding in a state full of roadways near rivers raises the question: What should you do if the unthinkable happens?
One Canadian professor’s study of the matter is compressed into a useful acronym — SCWO — by the web page www.wikihow.com/Escape-from-a-Sinking-Car. The motto stands for the immediate sequence the professor advises in the short time available before a car sinks: Seatbelt; Children; Window; Out.
In short: undo your seatbelt; undo your children’s seatbelts, starting with the oldest who can help with the others; open a window; and then push any children out followed by yourself.
Gordon Giesbrecht is a University of Manitoba professor of “thermophysiology,” who studies human responses to extreme environments, including immersion in cold water. While a Web search will pull up lots of advice on what to do if your car hits the water, Giesbrecht has studied the matter in-depth.
As part of his research, he has submerged more than 100 cars in water with test subjects in some of them, once even placing himself in a sinking car (lowered by a hoist) to test his theories.
Along with graduate student Gerren McDonald, he published a 2006 paper, “Automobile Submersion: Lessons in Vehicle Escape,” a study that estimated that up to 400 North Americans die each year in sunken cars.
In a telephone interview, Giesbrecht said that one thing he strongly advised against was scrambling for a cellphone to call 911 once your car is in the water, thinking the car will float long enough while you call for help.
“Basically, we know a vehicle floats for about one minute,” said Giesbrecht. “Do not touch your cellphone because you will waste that one minute of opportunity to get out.”
Obviously, panic and fear are going to challenge one’s attention, which is why Giesbrecht wants to keep the advice simple and straightforward.
Some TV shows and Web sources suggest you wait for the car to fill with water, then open the doors to escape. That strategy worked less than a third of the time in his studies, and Giesbrecht discourages the idea of opening the doors as it will ensure the car fills with water and sinks like a stone.
“The window is your exit — period. Not the doors, the windows,” he said.
Giesbrecht recommends buying a center-punch device, like the $10 ResQME tool, a small key-chain-size tool that can be used to shatter windows and cut seatbelts. He keeps one hanging from his rear-view mirror in plain sight though it can be used as a keychain, too.
But stashing the tool or others like it (such as the $20 Lifehammer — www.lifehammer.com), in a glove compartment or under the seat may make them impossible to reach in the fraught conditions of a car in the water. It is important to get a window opened or broken open quickly, he said.
“The reason you need to do this quickly is electronic windows will only work for a short period of time. The sooner you engage those the more likely you will be able to open them.”
Giesbrecht also offers some advice for a common situation encountered on the back roads of West Virginia — the risk involved when a driver tries to drive through or across a flooded road.
“This is a particular disaster because the other scenarios are accidental and this one you do on purpose.”
It’s important to note, he said, that a car will float in as little as 20 inches of water.
“The issue with floating in water is crucial because if you have 20 inches of water over a road usually what happens is the water is flowing. If your car floats even an inch off the road the current moves you off the road and over a ditch and now you’re in 5, 10, 15 feet of water. And now you’re in a deadly situation.”
Even people familiar with their local roads when they flood can misread the situation, he said.
“We had a case here a year ago in southern Manitoba where it floods every year in the Red River Valley,” said Giesbrecht.
A farmer who grew up in area died after his car was washed away on a familiar road, he said. “Everybody drives over this road when it gets flooded — only this year the water was six inches higher and it fooled him.
“It doesn’t have to be raging torrential flooding. We actually went and did a test at same spot — the water was not as deep and the current not as strong and it was remarkable. We pushed the vehicle out there and it just barely floated. The car has only got to move over 10 feet and it’s over the road and you’re dead.
“We’ve even told the folks out there — take a stick and mark 12 inches on it and walk along the road and confirm that water is 12 inches or less deep and then maybe you can consider it.”
Otherwise, he advised area residents to “turn your truck around and go home a different way.”
When Your Car Goes in the Water
1. Brace yourself for impact as soon as you know you’re going into the water. Place both hands on the steering wheel to prepare for the possibility the airbags will inflate.
2. Unbuckle your seatbelt.
3. Unbuckle the children, starting with the oldest, who can help with the others.
4. Open a window, either electronically (if you have power windows) or manually (if you don’t).
5. If you can’t open the window, break it with a small hammer or small punch. If you don’t have one, buy one soon like the ResQME or Lifehammer tools. If you don’t have a glass-smashing tool or heavy object handy, use your feet.
6. Push the children out first then swim out through the window. It is possible to escape through a window, even with a flood of water coming in.
7. If you’re unable to open a window or break it, let the car begin filling with water. When the water pressure inside the car is equal to the pressure outside the car, you should be able to open a door.