Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Medical Topic: How to Survive a Vehicle Submersion

While this is primarily a Permaculture blog, I am still a physician.  I will from time to time have a Medical Topic covering an issue that I feel is important. 

Car that slid off the road into a semi-frozen lake.

Last year I attended a conference in Utah put on by the Wilderness Medicine Society.  One lecture topic that was eye-opening was on Vehicle Submersions.
Gordon Giesbrecht conducting research.

Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht from the University of Manitoba gave a great presentation on his research of dumping over 50 cars and trucks (with people inside) into lakes.  His research has shown, and debunked common myths, best way to survive if you find yourself in this situation.
I'll summarize here:
  • 350-400 people die each year in the U.S. and Canada when they accidentally drive into a lake or river.
  • Of all types of vehicle accidents, vehicle submersion has the highest rate of death.
  • Based on polling data, the average person does not know the way to survive a vehicle submersion.
  • Most people will grab their cell phone and call 911 or a friend.  This wastes the 50 seconds (average) that a person can get out of a car and survive.  If you stay in the car longer than 50 seconds, your chance if living almost drops to zero.  We listened to 911 recordings of people who spent over a minute talking to the operator trying to describe where they were and find out what to do… all of them died a few minutes later.
  • The average car will sink in 60-90 seconds.
  • The average multi-ton truck used for snow-plowing will sink in less than 10 seconds.
  • The car will fill-up COMPLETELY with water shortly after it sinks.
  • THERE IS NO AIR POCKET!!! (okay, RARELY will an air pocket form, but only if the car stays horizontal (very rare) and settles gently on the bottom (also very rare)).
  • Most vehicles will flip right side up in a few seconds regardless of how they entered the water (sideways, upside down, etc.) before they start to sink.
  • Most vehicles will tip forward (due to the weight of the engine) and will sink to the bottom headlights first - all the air escapes through the back seat and out the back of the car so no air pocket forms.
  • Most people CANNOT kick in a window to break it (unless you practice!):  This was tested multiple times on dry land by many different sized and strength individuals.  For those that did break the window, it took more time than they would have before the car filled with water.  You can’t hold your breath and exert yourself hard at the same time!  They did develop a “trick” though.  If you kick at the bottom angle of the window closest to the hinge, then you have a greater chance of breaking the glass.  I will now be carrying a glass breaking tool in my car – IN AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE PLACE (like hanging from my rear view mirror or on my kechain).  Here is a great one that I make no money on: Res-Q-Me
  • Crank windows are best in cars!
  • Electric windows will not work once the computer that runs the motor gets wet.
  • NEVER try to open the door!  The pressure of the water against the sinking vehicle will slam it shut hard (maybe trapping an arm or hand – or chopping off a finger!).
  • A back hatch like in SUV’s and Minivans are a good means of escape if you have an inside latch – practice this!
  • YOU CAN CLIMB OUT A WINDOW WITH WATER RUSHING IN.  I watched multiple videos of people climbing out while water was rushing in. You do not need to wait for the car to fill up first.  
1. Don’t touch your cell phone
2. Remove your seatbelt.
3. Get your child unbuckled (if a child or children are in the car).
4. Roll down your window or break it if you cannot roll it down.
5. Climb out of the car and swim to shore.
If you can do these steps (it takes less than 30 seconds if you know what to do first), your chance of surviving will be dramatically improved.


  1. An uncomfortable read, but important information - hopefully I'll never need to use it!

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