Vehicle Submersion

One Minute To Save Your Life

A Fatal Kind of Accident

Vehicle submersion has one of the highest fatality rates of any type of accident involving a single vehicle.  

Sadly, most fatalities are preventable.  The cause of death is usually drowning, not trauma.

In Canada and the U.S.A., vehicle submersion fatalities account for up to 10% of all drownings

Up to 5,000 such deaths occur every year in the industrialized world, and while statistics are not available for developing nations, we can assume that a similar number of incidents occur, if not more. 

We therefore estimate that at least 10,000 lives are lost every year around the globe in one of the worst ways possible.

Where There is Flood Water, There is Danger

When we think of a sinking vehicle, we tend to think of large bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, canals and coastlines.

The reality is that potentially life-threatening situations exist whenever water can press against the side windows, locking them in place and trapping passengers.

Submerged car being towed out of a large body of water

Large Water Bodies

This is what we typically think about when we think vehicle submersion. 

Floods and Flash Floods

Wherever there is a flood, there is potential for life-threatening vehicle submersion situations.  

In particular, flash floods pose a serious threat because they catch people off guard.  Flash floods are sudden local floods, occurring “within minutes or hours of excessive rainfall, dam or levee failure, or a sudden release of water held by an ice jam”.  

According to the National Weather Service, “flash floods are the #1 weather-related killer in the United States”.

Automobiles are submeresed in flood water
SUV is submerged in water in a large pothole

Sinkholes and Potholes

Sinkholes and potholes can pose unexpected threats to vehicle occupants.  What at first appears as shallow water on a road’s surface can actually hide a much deeper safety risk. 

Why Fatality is so High

Vehicle submersion is a terrifying situation.  Moments after impact with water, the severity of the situation becomes quite real as you realize that water is rapidly rising around your feet.  Panic takes over as you try to open the door – which doesn’t budge.

It seems obvious to reach for your phone in an emergency, but cellphone calls made by people trapped inside a sinking vehicle are rarely successful.  That’s because there simply isn’t enough time to wait for help to arrive. You have about one minute to get out. No rescue system will get to you in that time.

To survive, you must immediately take the correct actions to exit the vehicle as fast as possible.

In most cases, exiting through the side windows as early as possible is the only chance of escape.  They must be opened or broken within the first minute of vehicle impact.  Once the water starts to rise up against the side windows, it presses in on them, preventing anyone from opening them.  When this happens, the situation has now turned critical and, most likely, fatal.

Mistakes Cost Lives

Most people aren’t prepared to deal with the terrifying reality of being caught in a sinking car.  

Stress, inexperience and wrong information cause us to make poor decisions and waste valuable seconds on the wrong actions.

Here are some of the most common mistakes:

Most of the items on this list are common misconceptions and only serve to let valuable seconds slip away.

Waiting for the Passenger Compartment to Fill to Open the Doors

The truth is that, at some point, the pressures will stabilize and the doors can eventually be opened.  But anyone still inside will have drowned well before this is possible. You don’t have to take our word for it – Mythbusters busted this myth here. Near the end of the episode, Adam confirmed that before it was possible to open the door, he had to use the on-board oxygen supply. In other words, he confirmed that had this been a real-life scenario, he would have drowned before the doors could have been opened.

Kicking Out the Windshield

Kicking out the windshield often comes up when discussing vehicle submersion.  Let’s set the record straight: you have one minute to exit the vehicle before it is too late.  Of all windows, the front windshield is the most difficult to kick; even the back windshield is easier.  

If you must resort to kicking windows, your best bet is to kick the side windows.  Do not kick the center of the window, but rather the lower corner of the window closest to the door hinges.  

Not all windows are breakable and as the industry continues to transition to polycarbonate glass, trying to kick those windows will only prove futile.

That is why AWOS is an essential safety feature: it will automatically lower the windows when a vehicle submersion occurs.

In a Submersion, Every Second Counts

Try holding your breath for 1 minute.
Once the passenger compartment completely fills with water, one last breath is all you have left. That’s why the correct actions must be taken immediately to get out as fast as possible while there’s still a chance.