Driving tests

How to get out of a sinking car

New Zealand has a huge number of roads that wind around our coastline and along rivers in valleys, for example a road like SH25 from Thames to Coromandel which has a large number of places where, if you go off the road, you’ll go directly into the sea. It’s not only skidding off a twisting road that can cause you to end up in water:

  • You drive into a deep flooded area that was impossible to see because it was dark
  • Your car is swept away by a flash flood
  • You accidentally roll into a lake or river from a parking area
  • A bridge fails while you’re driving over it
  • You don’t notice that a bridge is out because it’s dark and visibility is poor.

Therefore it’s important to know how to get out of a sinking car.

When your car hits the water

Hitting water from a height (e.g. falling off a bridge or going over the edge of a cliff) is similar to hitting a solid object. It is nothing like an Olympic diver entering the pool. You will experience a rapid deceleration and it’s likely your air bags will deploy.

If you drive into water, for example, you drive at speed into a flood or river, you’ll come to quite a rapid stop.

In either case, your car will float for a short time, and you will be able to get yourself and passengers out. The engine will weigh the front of the car down and that area will fill up with water quickest. Water will also start coming in through the firewall and door frames, but air trapped in the passenger cabin will keep your car afloat. However, once it starts to sink, it will do so ever more quickly.

If you’re driving a convertible, you’ll sink much faster, but then it’s much easier to get out of the car.

How to get out of a sinking car

Time is absolutely vital. People that wait in the car until it fills up, thinking they will swim to the surface, usually die. People that panic usually die.  You will have at least 20-30 seconds to get out, and possibly up to two minutes depending on how well your car holds air. That’s plenty of time to unbuckle a couple of children and yourself and get them out of the car.

Step 1

Undo everyone’s seat belts, starting with your own, then the child that is most capable of helping, and so on.

Deliberately hyperventilate to enrich your blood with oxygen; you might need this if the car sinks quickly.

Step 2

You now need to make a way of getting out. A large sunroof is ideal because it gives you more time, but a window is just as good. Your vehicle electrics will work for at least 30-60 seconds until water gets fully into the electrics. If the window won’t go down, kick out a side window (not the windscreen as this is made of reinforced glass). Don’t wait until the car fills up with water – fight against it.

If the car starts to roll, hold onto something like the top of the seat or the door handle to keep your orientation. This can happen if you drive into a flash flood with a strong current.

Step 3

Get all children out of the vehicle first either having them exit through rear windows that you’ve opened, or getting them out a front window (you might want to remove the headrests to make this easier). Bear in mind that the front windows will be below water first because the weight of the engine will tip the car forwards, so you will have slightly more time to get out of the rear windows, but that does mean you need to climb into the rear, and some rear windows don’t roll down the whole way.

Leave everything else in the car – you don’t need anything dragging you down.

Step 4

If you’re already underwater and disorientated look for the direction of bubbles when you breathe out so you know where the surface is.

Swim to shore as quickly as you can. If you’re not good at swimming try taking your shoes off, but don’t waste time.

Surefire ways of dying in a submerged car

  1. Wait until the car is full of water and sinking before you try to get out. While the doors will be easier to open, you’ve got much less time to get out before you run out of air. It’s not recommended unless you’re a professional free diver.
  2. Getting out first then trying to reach in to help your children – it’s much easier to help them while you’re in the car.
  3. Call 111 for help – you’ll drown while waiting.

Here’s a video showing you what to do

driver training

Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

Posted in Advice
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