Driver Knowledge Tests

How to escape a sinking car

Around the world several thousand people die every year in a sinking car. It can happen in a number of ways:

  • Car gets swept away by a flash flood
  • Driver accidentally drives into a lake or river from a road or parking area
  • Car rolls down a bank into a river or lake because the hand brake wasn’t applied properly
  • Driver drives into an unexpectedly flooded area
  • Bridge failure

What happens when your car hits the water?

You’ll come to a rapid halt as you hit the water. The car will then start to tip forwards as the engine weighs it down (the engine compartment fills up quickly with water, but air trapped in the cabin will keep it bouyant).

Once the car starts to sink, it will do so increasingly quickly.

What to do when your car is submerged in water

If you panic, your chances of survival are much lower, so follow these simple rules and you’ll get out. You have, at minimum, 30 seconds to get out, and anywhere up to 2 minutes depending on how airtight your car is, which will influence how well it floats – that’s plenty of time.

The priority is to get out of the car as quickly as possible. Do not remain in it, waiting for the car to fill up, as the deeper you sink, the more water pressure is forcing the doors and windows closed and the further you have to swim to get out. You won’t be able to roll down the window once the water gets to the bottom of the windows because water pressure will force the window against the frame, making it impossible to move, even with a manual crank.

Step 1: undo everyone’s seat belts (yours first, then your children’s)

Step 2: Open the window, and if you can’t do that, kick or elbow open the side window. Aim for the centre of the window. If you can’t do that, you will have to open the door, but that will be extremely difficult. Water will rush in and you will have to fight against it. Waiting until the car fills will make opening the door easier, but will reduce your survival chances to about 10% according to studies. If you have a sunroof, this can give you more time. Electric windows will work for at least a minute until the water swamps the electrics. It’s preferable to go out the window because if the water is turbulent, it can push against the door. Also, if the car tips and hits the bottom, it will close the door again, potentially trapping you (although, this could also happen if you’re half-way out of the window)

Step 3: Get any children out by pushing them out ahead of you

Step 4: Get out and swim to shore as quickly as you can. Don’t try to bring anything with you from the car. If you’re not a strong swimmer, removing your shoes can help, but don’t waste time.

Passengers in the rear can remove the front seat headrests if they need to exit through the front windows. The rear windows on some cars don’t go down the whole way, or are smaller than the front windows.

Never touch your cellphone – you don’t have time to make an emergency call while you’re sinking.

Never try holding your breath and breathing using the air bubble in the car – this is a good way for you to drown unless you’re a master at free diving.

If you do have to wait until the car is well submerged before you can get out, keep hold of the door handle to maintain your orientation as the car can roll, flip or tilt as it sinks, especially in deep water with strong currents. Take deep breaths using the remaining air. As you escape, look for the direction of the bubbles as you exhale so you can tell which way is up.

Of course, if you’re driving a convertible, it’s easy to escape!


Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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