A few years ago I had, on several occasions, a reoccurring nightmare of driving a car off a bank into a river, or the sea. I couldn’t escape from the car, and always woke up when the water started rushing in, and I couldn't breathe.

These dreams led me to do a little research into how to escape if this should happen. This both helped my dreams, and eased my mind for if such a thing happens in future. The following is a simple list of what you should do in the event of driving into deep water:

It is extremely difficult to break the windows in modern cars using a blunt object such as a hand or a foot. It is also possible to injure yourself. The best way to break a window (and you'll find that this method is extremely easy) is to use a ballpoint pen, screwdriver, or other object with a strong, pointed tip. Smash the tip of the pen (or other object) into the middle of the window with as much force as you can, and the window will break, even if there is water on the other side of it. Don't even think about trying to break the windshield though...you'll never succeed. Break one of the side windows.

Seatbelts are very hard to cut because they are so tightly woven (is woven a word? - weaved?). Your knife has to be extremly sharp, so dont use it for anything else, and have it sharpened again if you are ever unlucky enough to actually have to use it (lightning can strike twice, but you'd have to bloody unlucky to drive into a lake twice).

You can buy a combination tool that has a section that is designed to cut seat-belts easily. The tool is shaped like a hammer, and has a pointed metal end which is for breaking the windows. Not sure where you get them - probably at a hardware store or car accessory shop.

The best knives to use on cutting the webbing of standard nylon seatbelts is a sharp serrated knife. Even if the knife is dulled with use, the serrations will give you enough cutting action to get through the webbing quicker than if you were using a straight-edge knife.

  • DON'T PANIC!
  • If the car is still sinking, or if it is still afloat, then it is crucial to escape as fast as possible before you sink deeper and put yourself in more danger. (Thanks to Oolong and his copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook for this one)
  • On the other hand, if the car has hit the floor already, you'll probably have a few minutes before the car fills up on its own through the ventilators and other holes, and one carful of air is enough to sustain you for at least that long. You will therefore probably have time to settle everyone down and explain the plan to your passengers.
  • Points with an asterisk (*) below are those you should only do if you have time.
  • The Plan
    • DO NOT attempt to open your car door. If the car is fully submerged, then the water pressure from the outside will make the door many times heavier than normal: if you're more than ten metres underwater, the door will be like a tonne weight. This is the principle that submarine airlock hatches work on: they all open outwards, and water pressure outside forces them shut while the submarine is submerged.
    • Instead, you need to equalise the pressure between the inside and the outside of the car. Basically, you have to fill the car with water by winding down the windows. Once this is done, the doors will open with great ease and you can escape.
  • What to do
    • *Make those people who aren't so good at holding their breath change seats so that they're seated as close to the door as possible. This gives them a better chance of escaping.
    • *Got any warm clothing? Put it all on, grab hold of the stuff you can't. If you crashed anywhere other than the Carribean or Mediterranean Seas, then regardless of how quickly you escape, and regardless of whether or not you make it to land soon afterwards, when you get in the water it will probably be cold. You may even have hypothermia to contend with if it happens to be winter. So wrap up.
    • *Exceptions to the warm clothing rule: boots, jeans. Boots are heavy and will weigh you down. Jeans soak up water and also weigh you down. If you have these on, and you are uncertain about swimming while wearing them, then take them off.
    • If you've crashed into, for example, the River Thames, then the water is also likely to be very dirty. There is nothing you can do about this, except to try to keep your eyes and mouth closed for as long as possible while you are underwater.
    • MAKE SURE ALL THE DOORS ARE UNLOCKED. Otherwise you might as well be signing your own death warrant. If there are child-locks on any of the doors, tell the people who're going to use those doors. If possible, move them to a door which doesn't have a child-lock. Otherwise, they will have to swim through the window when the time comes.
    • *Make sure that everybody's escape is arranged for and that everyone knows exactly how they are getting out. Nobody wants to be left behind.
    • If there is a dog in the back, LEAVE IT. YOUR life and those of your passengers are more important than any dog. *I mean, fine, take down the wire mesh guard that's keeping it trapped in the back, but seriously, get your priorities straight.
    • Take a few deep breaths, then finally take a deep breath and hold it. Close your eyes. Prepare to get wet.
    • As quickly as you possibly can, open your windows as far as they can go. This is to allow the car to fill up with water as quickly as possible.
    • Once the windows are open by a small amount, a lot of water will rush in and soak you. Disregarding this, you have to keep opening the window until it won't go any further.
    • Wait until the rushing of water stops.
    • NOW open the car doors and swim out. If there is a large enough sunroof which can be slid fully open (as opposed to merely jutting upwards by a few degrees) then this is a viable means of escape as well. If there are kids, send them first, or grab hold of them as you go.
    • If you are more than ten metres down, remember to exhale all the way up. The air in your lungs will expand as you rise, and it is stupid and dangerous to attempt to hold it all in. If you are a seriously long way down, see also The Bends.

Oh, and you can forget about recovering your car.

Inspired by the concept of, but not in any way copied from, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. I've never even seen a copy of that thing, this is all my own work. Corrections and additions gratefully accepted and credited. I apologise for repeating much of what was posted above... I consulted an editor about posting this, and he insisted on making me accept responsibility for my own actions by shrugging. Thanks to Oolong for pointing out a typo.

Richard Hammond put this theory to the test on the popular motoring show Top Gear a while ago.

Suspended aloft in a crappy old Vauxhall, he was to be dunked into a fairly deep tank, and try the two theories - those being: "wait for the car to fill" and "get the hell out ASAP"

Given the popularity of the 'wait' method, that was tried first. The crane dunked the car into the drink, and Hammond looked slightly alarmed as the water immediately poured in from all directions. As it continued to sink, the water level rose and he soon found himself with his nose pressed against the roof lining gasping for breath.

With the car finally completely filled, he began struggling with the door. No dice, and after a valiant effort he grabbed desperately for the oxygen being offered by the diver sitting in the back seat.

Extremely daunted, Hammond nonetheless re-entered the car once it had been drained and lifted above the tank again. Shaken by his near-death experience, he was not going to waste any time when the car hit the water.

The crane released, the car hit the water, and Hammond immediately began pushing desperately on the door. Water was pouring in everywhere, Hammond grimaced with the exertion, and the opening door was providing a huge channel for more water to enter.

In spite of this, he managed to force the door open far enough to make his escape, the car having not yet completely submerged.

The lesson? If in a situation where death is likely, don't wait for the right time to make a daring escape. sam512 is right - get the fuck out of (your) Dodge (or Chrysler, or Toyota, or...)

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