On December 22, 2022, two Manheim township officers rescued a woman from a sinking car just as it was about to submerge completely. 

What happened? The woman had misjudged a turn and accidentally drove into a pond. Thanks to the officers, her life was saved and she only suffered minor injuries.

Unfortunately, stories like this happen all the time. According to Canadian researcher Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba, 400 people drown in vehicles every year in North America. 

The first step to avoiding a similar fate is prevention. Most vehicle drowning incidents are a result of people driving into flooded areas. So be extra careful about where you drive.

But sometimes you might find yourself in a sinking car because it slid off the road into a body of water, you drove off a bridge, or you missed a turn. In such cases, you have about 30 to 60 seconds to get out of your car before it is fully submerged. After that, escaping is more tricky.

In reality, a minute can be plenty of time to escape, but only if you know what you’re doing. So here’s a step-by-step guide on what to do if you find yourself in a sinking car:

1. Open the window(s) as soon as possible

The first step is to open the windows as soon as possible. Why? Because this is your best chance of escape, and you only have a short time while your car is still floating to open them easily. Once the water hits window level, opening them will be much harder.

2. Unfasten your seatbelt

Next, unbuckle your seatbelt. This way, you don’t get stuck trying to get out of the car.

In the past, some experts recommended keeping your seat belt on so that if the car submerges while you are in it, you will be anchored to your seat (instead of flailing around) while you try to break a window or open a door. But this is poor advice since unbuckling underwater can be difficult and you might get stuck.

3. Get any children out first, then follow

Get any children out of the vehicle first. If the child doesn’t know how to swim take them with you or send them with an adult. Otherwise, bring them to an open window and send them through it before following them to safety.

If that doesn’t work …

4. Stay calm

It may be too late to go through the steps listed above. In that case, try not to panic. Doing so will only make the situation worse. If the car isn’t fully submerged, take several deep breaths and one last big one right before the water reaches your chin.

5. Break a side window

At this point, your next best chance of escaping is to break a window. 

Opening a car door won’t do for two reasons: First, all the pressure from the water outside the vehicle will make it nearly impossible to open the door. Second, even if you do manage to open it, it will let in a flood of water that will cause the car to immediately sink, potentially making it harder for you and others to escape.

So go for breaking a side window instead. Side windows are built with tempered glass, which means they will shatter into a million pieces upon hard impact with a sharp object. In contrast, front windows (aka windshields) aren’t tempered, so they crack into a spider web pattern and are much harder to break through.

Keep in mind that punching through a car window is extremely difficult, especially underwater (since the water resistance will slow your punch). Instead, keep an emergency window hammer or window-punching device in your car for this exact scenario. Most also double as a seat belt cutting tool. You can order them online for as little as $10.

Keep the window-breaking device somewhere in your car that is easily accessible. You don’t want to be fumbling around for it in the glove compartment when disaster strikes.

6. Only try to open the door as a last resort

If you aren’t having any luck breaking through windows, you can try to open the car door as a last resort. 

Again, it takes a lot of strength. In the past, experts recommended waiting for the entire car to fill with water before opening the door so that the pressure inside and outside of the car can equalize. That way, opening the door is easier. But the truth is that the pressure doesn’t equalize as soon as the car fills with water. It takes more time. And if you wait too long, you’ll drown. So you’re better off trying to get out the door as soon as possible. But remember, this should be a last resort.

7. Swim to safety

If you manage to get out of the car, push yourself off of it and swim to safety. Your held breath should help you float to the surface. But if not or if you are disoriented, look for bubbles and follow the direction they are going (which is always up). 

Then once you’re out of the water, stay out. Don’t try to reenter the sinking car to retrieve anything except another person. And even then, you should leave it to emergency responders if possible, which brings us to our last point …

8. Call 911

Once you’re on dry land, have someone call 911 (chances are you won’t have a working cellphone on you). Whatever you do, don’t try to do this step while you’re still in the sinking car. This only wastes precious time, and first responders more than likely won’t be able to get to you in the mere minutes you have to get out anyway.

Final thoughts

Sitting inside a sinking car is scary business. But at least now you know what to do if you are ever in this situation.

And if you ever find yourself in a submerged car accident near Tampa, be sure to consult an experienced Tampa auto accident attorney. They can help you get the compensation you deserve for any car damage, injuries, lost income, and emotional and mental trauma. Contact Hancock Injury Attorneys at this site to learn more.