What should you do when your car goes into the water? Hear from a survivor.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2008

Dear Tom and Ray:

You recently answered a question about what to do if your car goes into the water. You asked if any of your readers had personal experience in this matter. I do. Here's my story.

On June 17, 2006 (the eve of Father's Day), at about 9:30 p.m., I accidentally drove my car into a river on the eastern shore of Maryland. I was taking a "spirited" drive down Bogles Wharf Road in the Eastern Neck Wildlife Reserve, and in the dark I didn't realize that it dead-ended into the Chester River. I landed about 30 feet out. I remember that my landing was very smooth, much like a log flume at an amusement park. The water cushioned the blow. I did have my seat belt on, but the air bags did not activate.

I instinctively opened my window, unbuckled my seat belt, kicked off my shoes, climbed through the window and swam to safety. When I got to shore, I realized that I was in my bare feet 7 miles from the nearest town. My car had sunk to the bottom in about 4 feet of water, but the lights were still on (under water) and the top of the car was still exposed. I waded back to the car and climbed in to find my shoes, wallet and briefcase. While I was sitting chest deep in water in the passenger seat putting my shoes on, the window that I had climbed in automatically closed, trapping me in the car. I remember hearing the locks all click shut. Obviously, the electrical system was shorting out. I tried to open the windows and doors, but they wouldn't budge. Then I climbed into the back seat and began kicking the rear driver's-side window. I kicked as hard as I could, but the window wouldn't break.

Totally exhausted, I gave up, assuming that it was my time to die. I said a short prayer. A few seconds later, the rear window that I had been kicking automatically went down about 8 inches. I was able to squeeze my head and chest through the opening, but when my knee hit the top of the window, it shattered. Apparently, once the window is down even a little bit, you can break it. When it's completely closed, the frame supports it and makes it almost impossible to break.

Since my accident, I have done exhaustive research on auto water immersion, entrapment and escape. I've interviewed many experts and combined their knowledge with my own personal experience to try to educate the public on how to escape a sinking car. I've learned that there is ONE CRITICAL MISTAKE some people make that costs them their life. They remain in the car with the windows closed, thinking the car will float long enough for the rescue squad to save them. This is a deadly mistake. It takes at least 20 minutes (usually longer) for a rescue squad to arrive. The car sinks long before they get there.

I must say that your article in the newspaper gave some of the best advice I have heard for escaping a sinking car. You are correct in saying that THE KEY TO SURVIVING A WATER-IMMERSION ACCIDENT IS TO OPEN THE WINDOW AND GET OUT OF THE CAR AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE!

Here are my five steps to surviving a water-immersion accident: (1) Try to stay calm. (2) Open the window. (3) Unbuckle your seat belt. (4) Climb through the window. (5) Swim to safety. The only preventative actions you can take (other than trying to steer away from the water) are to wear a seat belt, and to keep an auto-escape tool such as a LifeHammer or ResQMe in your car. These allow you to cut a jammed seat belt and shatter a car window in an emergency. -- Archie

TOM: OK, everybody got that? Open the window, escape from the car, and DO NOT GO BACK for your wallet, your shoes or your Steely Dan CDs!

RAY: I don't know about your smooth landing, Archie. But the last time I was on a water flume at an amusement park, I got a wedgie that took me two weeks to dislodge. So, how smooth your water landing is probably depends on your speed and angle of entry. A seat belt is an absolute must so you're not knocked unconscious.

TOM: Thanks for sharing your story, Archie. If anyone wants to read our original advice in its entirety, you can find our previous columns at www.cartalk.com.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One