Today: What to Do When Your Car Is Underwater

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Oct 09, 2012

Dear Tom and Ray:

I'm an authentic Chinese citizen writing to you guys from China. Did you imagine you would ever have faithful listeners and readers across the Pacific? Well, you have at least one! I studied and worked in the U.S. for 10 years before moving my family back to China. Now I commute about 50 miles a day by car. Your "Car Talk" radio-show podcast has made this routine journey bearable, and even joyful sometimes. Thank you!

My question: Last week, a huge storm hit Beijing, causing serious flooding inside the city. One man reportedly drove his SUV under an underpass, and got trapped under 10 feet of water. Realizing that his car windows and doors were all stuck (or locked), he desperately tried to crack a window to escape. Meanwhile, he called his wife, asking her to come and rescue him with a hammer. Sadly, after spending about 40 minutes inside the car, he still could not break the window.

When his wife arrived, it was too late. Of course, shame on the government's infrastructure system. But I wonder what advice you would offer to anyone who finds himself in this sort of situation. You may think it is an uncommon scenario, but who can exclude the possibility that a disgruntled husband, like myself, desperately annoyed by his wife, may want to terminate his life by driving his car into a lake? And when he is already in the water, he realizes he forgot to turn off the rice cooker, and suddenly needs to get out?

Thanks! -- Yang

TOM: That's why we always say make sure you double-check the rice cooker before leaving the house, Yang.

RAY: Actually, this kind of accident, where a car ends up under -- or largely under -- water can happen anywhere. So here's what you need to know in case it happens to you.

TOM: First, the window is a better option than the door. There's a huge amount of pressure against the outside of the door from the surrounding water, so it's very, very hard to push open a door.

RAY: Second, on many cars, power windows will continue to work for at least a short time after a car has been submerged. So Step 1 is to take a deep breath and try to open your window immediately. If you have passengers, make sure they're all conscious and free of their seatbelts before letting water flood in.

TOM: In case the power windows do not work, then you should keep a tool in the glove box that you can use to break a window. Car windows are hard to break. Manufacturers don't want them to break easily, or they'd be breaking all the time when they get hit by road debris.

RAY: Car glass also is tempered, which means it's been specially manufactured to be harder to break. And when it does break, it's supposed to shatter into small, non-sharp pieces. That's so that in the event of an accident, there are no shards or dangerous glass spears that can injure the car's occupants.

TOM: The way you break tempered glass is with a sharp, pointed object. A hammer, along with something like an awl or nail set will suffice. Or there are special small, pointy hammers made just for breaking car windows in an emergency. So it's a good idea to keep something like that in your glove box.

RAY: If you find yourself stuck without such a tool, your best bet probably is using your feet and trying to push out the windshield or rear window. Neither of those is set in tracks, like the side windows, and they may be easier to dislodge than the windows in the your car's doors.

TOM: But our best advice is to be very careful around water. It's hard to know how deep a puddle is before driving into it. So if you do encounter a puddle of unknown depth, proceed very, very slowly, and stop if necessary. Or even better, wait until some other knucklehead goes through it and see if he makes it first. Good luck, Yang!

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