When we think with a survival mentality, we usually consider the destination as our endgame. But getting to that safe place in a disaster is what presents the greatest risk. That greatest risk can come at any moment, anywhere – sadly, it’s an everyday occurrence in America.
How to Escape a Sinking Car in a Flood
The Greatest Survival Risk You’ll Ever Face is Flooding
It’s true, whether you’re a backwoods survivalist or commuter heading to corporate in Everytown, USA, the greatest general risk to your survival is flooding. Over 10,000 water immersion incidents (many of them fatal) occur annually in the U.S.
The National Severe Storms Laboratory’s experts agree a flood isn’t just the most common disaster. It’s the most dangerous. Flash floods can move thousands of gallons of water in seconds. Their incredible speed, power, and unpredictability can take lives without warning.
Sadly, just a few weeks ago, a Pennsylvania woman and her son were swept off the road in a flash flood and killed. She was able to phone 1911 but the intense waters meant it took rescuers over 45 minutes to reach her vehicle. During that time, she and her son drowned. The submerged area of homes and small businesses had never experienced a flood like it before. Four hundred people die like this each year.
We’re hitting the tragedy hard because it really can happen to you. Whether you live in the deserts of Arizona, the Rockies or Appalachians, the heart of New York City, or anywhere in between, you must know how to escape a flooded vehicle quickly.
Know the important facts about flash floods:
Before we go over how to escape your vehicle, you need to learn how dangerous a flash flood can be:
- Just 2” to 3” of water can jam your car door.
- Just 6” of water can sweep you off your feet.
- Two-thirds of all flood deaths occur inside vehicles.
- It takes less than 24” of water to move a large vehicle.
- Some floods can grow to 24” in less than two minutes.
- 90% of all declared disasters in the U.S. are floods.
The moral of the story is this: Even a “small” flood or road that appears lightly flooded can be incredibly dangerous. Conditions can worsen from a wet road to a torrent of waves in moments, and your car is the most dangerous place to be.
How to Escape a Sinking Car in a Flood
#1: Remain calm at all costs.
Technically, flooding and disasters like it aren’t directly responsible for so many deaths. The panic that fights to take over and consume your thought process is the real killer.
You must remain calm if you experience a vehicle flood or water immersion.
The moment you believe you’re in such a scenario, start taking deep breathes. Begin instructing yourself verbally or mentally, repeatedly going over the steps you must take to safely evacuate (we’ll go over that next). If you have passengers, declare what is happening but don’t give them time to panic. Immediately instruct them to follow your lead and announce the steps you all must take to get to safety.
Shared communication and working as a team are the greatest ways to prevent panic when seconds matter.
#2. Get out of your seatbelt immediately.
Panic will still fight to take over before, and your fine motor skills will likely go out the window. This is no fault of your own, but it could get you killed.
To ensure the greatest chance of survival, you must get out of any restraints in the vehicle immediately.
Unbuckle your seatbelt the moment you suspect you’re entering a flood scenario. If you can’t unbuckle for any reason, get to plan B, ASAP: Grab that glass breaker and seatbelt cutter you now keep in your center glove box (we’ve reviewed the best window breakers here) and use it to free yourself.
#3. Roll down the windows or break them.
Climbing through the windows is the only safe way to exit a drowning vehicle. Getting the windows open also increases your chance of survival by reducing drag and buoyancy in the surrounding water.
#4. Climb out of the vehicle, get to the roof.
Once you’ve managed to get the windows open – or broken – you should attempt to climb onto the hood or roof of the vehicle. It is critically important that you do not attempt to swim against floodwaters to reach safety.
Again, if the flood is bad enough to immobilize your vehicle and force you to evacuate, it’s almost guaranteed to be powerful enough to drown you. Even if your vehicle is unstable or moving with the current, it will retain some buoyancy. Vehicles are bottom-heavy and are likely to remain upright.
You should only dial 911 once you’ve safely evacuated the vehicle and are not in immediate danger of drowning.
Speaking of that, we need to address what you should not do if your vehicle’s caught in a flood.
If your vehicle is flooding, DO NOT:
Attempt to call 911 immediately.
This will be your first instinct. You must not give into it.
Nationally, it takes about 9 minutes and 35 seconds for police and EMS to respond to an emergency call. If you’re in a flash flood, you might have less than a minute or two to get to safety. Even if you manage to get ahold of the dispatcher, you’ll be wasting precious seconds talking to someone who can’t help you. Like the tragic story above, emergency services may not be able to reach you even if they can find you quickly.
You need every one of those seconds to work on escaping.
Attempt to open the doors. Ever.
If a flood forces you to evacuate your car, the water has probably already jammed your doors shut. Do not try to fight the water to get the doors open. You’ll waste more time and energy that you might need to swim or fight the currents outside.
Even if you can, you shouldn’t open the doors. Ever.
If you’re sinking, opening the doors will sink you faster. A torrent of fast-moving water and debris could get inside the vehicle, injuring or drowning you. It will also increase the chances of the vehicle being swept away – open doors create more surface area and drag and rushing water inside the vehicle can force it to be swept away more easily.
Wait for the vehicle to fill with water.
Hollywood has unfortunately helped contribute to the myth that you should let your drowning vehicle fill with water, equalizing the pressure, before opening the door to swim to safety. Emergency response experts once said this is the right thing to do, too.
It is not the right thing to do. Ever.
Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, PhD., is a renowned researcher who extensively studied emergency vehicle water submersions. His research says waiting for the vehicle to fill with water before escaping creates a greater risk of drowning.
Instead, Dr. Giesbrecht says you should follow the steps described above: Unbuckle immediately, gather friends and family in the vehicle, keep the doors shut, break or open the windows, and climb to safety as quickly as possible.
Travis Noonan is a prepper, gunsmith, and writer. He frequently writes about firearms, bushcraft, and survivalism. When he’s not busy writing, he’s teaching other shooters and preppers how to build tactical rifles using 80% lower receivers.