Cars and water: safety reminders for all of us

The recent events in Donegal will have left so many of us numbed with shock, and most will be simply unable, even unwilling, to imagine the terrible emotions being experienced by those close to the tragedy.
What happened in Buncrana though should be a warning to us all – cars and water can be a dangerous mix and if it all goes wrong, then any of us would have only seconds to act to save our lives or those of our other passengers.
A big part of the problem is that we’ve all seen too many movies, where cars seem to float for ages on the surface of the water before gently sliding under. That’s not how it happens – if a vehicle is sinking it will do so in seconds, not minutes. Speaking to the institute of National Trial Lawyers in the US, Detective Robert May, leader of one of the Indiana State Police’s underwater search and recovery teams says “I talk to police every day who don’t realise you have to get out of the vehicle as soon as it hits the water. Movies still show the drama of the car filling up. That’s Hollywood, but that’s what sticks in people’s minds.”
One safety expert, trained by the RIKAS organisation in Holland, warned us that “once the water hits your ankles you’ve got time enough to take one deep breath and that’s it.” Seconds really will count in such a situation.

Forget the myths and act

Cars and water 2 Basically, if your car falls into deep water, the best safety advice is to lower (or smash, if you have to) the windows and get out. The commonly-heard advice of waiting for the car to fill with water to equalise the pressure and allow you to open the door is a total fallacy – even the very strong amongst us will struggle to open a large car door in shallow water. Given that modern car electronics are so fragile when it comes to water contact, it’s also possible that the door locks may not disengage, so realistically the window is the only option. In that sense, older cars, with simpler electronics, are actually more robust if submerged.
The accepted safety rubric is ‘seatbelt, kids, window, out.’ If you have the time and the notion, it’s best to remove the headrests from the front seats, allowing anyone in the back an easier path out and the metal prongs on the headrests can be used to smash a window if the winder doesn’t work.
You as the driver will also have to try and make sure that those in the back stay as calm as possible and, obviously, help any kids back there to get their belts off before exiting the vehicle, and try and leave the headlights on (if the electrics haven’t failed) as this will help to show any rescuers in the area where you are.

Best advice

Cars and water 3That’s a lot to remember when water is rushing into the car’s cabin, but doing so may well save your life. And it’s not just on our coasts that we need to be careful, although obviously extreme care needs to be taken when moving cars around on small, unprotected piers and slipways. We’re a country with plenty of rivers too, and it would be all too easy to imagine having an accident which ends in your car toppling off a bridge and into the water. At least there is some good news – safety experts reckon that if you’ve been knocked unconscious the shock of the cold water will bring you around, increasing your chances of survival.
Floods too are an issue. It may sound laughable to imagine driving into a flood deep enough to entirely submerge a vehicle, but it can happen. Again, research in the USA points to some worrying conclusions. According to a report titled Flood Fatalities in the United States, “floods are the second-deadliest U.S. weather-related hazard.” Research by the Northern Illinois University for a 47 year period spanning 1959–2005, found 4.586 flood-related fatalities in the US. They concluded that, “for all flood types, a majority of fatalities occurred in vehicles (63 per cent).”


It’s easy to be spooked by a banner headline reporting a tragedy, and the fact that there is a headline at all will tell you that the event is thankfully rare and unusual – if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be news. But while our hearts are rightly going out to a community and a family left devastated, it would be wise of us to learn from the events, to remember the lessons and to hope that we never need deploy them in our own need.