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Self Rescue from Vehicle


Because of recent flooding across the U.S. there continue to be drownings that occur in submerged vehicles. Most of these situations happen because motorists ignore the common refrain heard so often on television--"turn around, don't drown". Public service campaigns will need to increase in an effort to educate the public about the risks of driving through flooded roadways, or even in proximity to bodies of water during rain, snow, ice and other treacherous conditions. Events in which drivers are trapped in submerged vehicles parallels another water related danger, that of low head dams and the vicious hydraulics (keeper action) that often drown swimmers who float, or boat, into them.

Professional rescuers who study the effects of both water depth and water force on vehicles report the following self-rescue principles that should be heeded by motorists;
1. It only takes six inches to two feet of depth to float a vehicle off its wheels (depending on current speed).
2. Eight inches to twelve inches of new, clear, hard ice is needed to be able to drive a small vehicle onto hardened ice. Twelve to fifteen inches for a medium size truck is a necessary depth.
3. If a vehicle leaves the road and lands in deep water, the vehicle's float time on the surface may be as little as 30 seconds or as long as four minutes. Factors affecting the float time will be the closed, sealed and intact windows, doors and weatherstrip seals. Because of the location and weight of the motor the vehicle will likely assume an angled position in the direction of the engine. The water force and current speed may spin the vehicle around with the motor (if up front) coming to rest, oriented upstream (facing the direction from which the current flows).
4. Don't try to drive across water in a vehicle even if it looks as though one could walk across.
5. Pay special attention to concrete, low water crossings because they can be much deeper in the middle than anticipated.

Self-escape procedures have been studied with the results published in a variety of professional magazines. Main points:
A. the decision to escape must begin immediately. Turn on the vehicle's headlights and hazard lights (will help rescuers). Take off your seatbelt. Because the vehicle may incur structural damage doors may not open and the only way out may be through a car window. While not meant to be a humorous statement, since the occupant of the vehicle may only have 30 seconds to escape before submersion, don't waste time calling on a cell phone. Get out! (Note: this has actually happened).

B. open the downstream window. If the water is flowing toward the passenger side, open the driver's side window. If it is coming toward the front of the vehicle, crawl to the back and break out the rear window. Studies have shown that the power windows may work for several minutes, or fail immediately. If available, use a window punch or hard object to break a window. A seat belt cutter or sharp knife may be needed to cut seat belts. If necessary, lie on the back and do a 'mule kick' to kick out a window.

C. if escape is delayed and the vehicle begins to sink it may not be possible to escape until the water pressure equalizes inside the vehicle. If the water is deep the vehicle might do what experts call "turtle"--which is to turn upside down. An occupant inside would be completely disoriented.

D. while easy to say, it is imperative to maintain emotional control and remain as calm as possible. Take deliberate action to exit the vehicle. Climb on top of the vehicle, if possible.

E. authorities who study these factors advocate using the escape principles of SOS--GO:
S=stay calm. Assess the situation. Slow the breathing.
O=open the doors, or a window.
S=disengage the seatbelt.
GO=get out and swim to the surface.

F. limited studies have shown that if young children are occupants in car seats, the seats evaluated (no list provided of available brands) were sufficiently buoyant to float a child on the surface of the water. Cut the car seat loose from the seat belt with the child still secured.

G. motorists should carry a list of these safety rules and a tool for breaking out windows.

1. Swiftwater/floor Rescue Forum on Yahoo, Digest Number 3526, and other Forums.
2. Jaye Watson, a Gwinnet County, Georgia in an internet blog.
3. Gerald Dworkin, EMS, Professional Firefighter and Aquatics and Water Safety Consultant (article in Swiftwater/flood Rescue Forum, Digest 3526).
4. Class Handouts from a Flood Control Workshop taught by Jim Segerstrom (deceased) in mid-90's. Jim was a well-known rescue authority and one of founders of Rescue 3 International.

Jim Simmons, 12/2009. ACA Instructor, Jim Jones, contributed to this report.
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