In most cases you have a 30-120 second window to escape your vehicle before it is completely submerged underwater. You need to act fast. According to the paper, Automobile Submersion: Lessons in Vehicle Escape, more than 400 people die in North America every year because they don't or are unable to act quickly enough before drowning. To avoid sleeping with the fishes, the next time you find yourself bobbing up and down in the lake, employ these four steps:
Step One: Chill OutA lesson for any time-sensitive life threatening situation, keep calm. Hyperventilating, screaming, stunned frozen silence; these reactions may feel natural but they will also cost you your life.
Save the theatrics until after you are safely out of the car and calmly assess the situation to get yourself out as soon as possible. Take off your seat belt, cutting it if necessary, and go on to step two.
Step Two: Create an Escape RouteYour car is probably filling up with water at this point so you need to create a way out. If you can roll down your windows, this is obviously the easiest method. Cars that use electric windows may or may not be functioning, if they are you are good to go.
Do not under any circumstance try to open the door. First off, you probably couldn't if you tried. Second, the small attempt will if anything, only accomplish letting more water inside. This is where a tool such as the LifeHammer is really worth its weight in gold. Keep an emergency tool inside your vehicle at all times that will allow you to easily shatter your windows or cut your seat belt. Once you have a window opened, it is time to go. If for any reason you couldn't get out of the window you will have to wait until the vehicle completely submerges and the pressure alleviates. With a bit of muscle you should be able to get the door open.
Step Three: Save Small People FirstIf you have other passengers in your vehicle, specifically children, help them out first. As soon as you have gotten out of your seat belt and broken the window, help the children out of theirs. Small kids may have trouble fighting the current so do what you need to do to get them out of there. It may be necessary for you to carry them out.
Step Four: Swim to SafetyThe hard part is over, but you still need to swim to a safe place. Be mindful that there could be strong currents. Do whatever you need to do to get to dry land. If you are in a public area, this is probably a good time to start calling for help.
It is extremely important to be mentally prepared for any life-threatening situation you may find yourself in. Whether you study up on what to do when animals attack cars, or you do a mental run-through of escaping a sinking vehicle, a few steps can save your life.
Jessica Galbraith is a full-time writer and author of the travel blog The Fly Away American. Find her at Twitter @flyawayamerican.