The dangers of vehicle submersion

When a car recently crashed into a drainage culvert near downtown Colorado Springs, attempts to save the elderly driver didn’t succeed. According to local news reports, by the time he was pulled out of the vehicle he couldn’t be revived.

Not all of the details from the crash are known, and it isn’t clear if the driver drowned or had passed away before getting submerged in the culvert water. Regardless of the specific details, once a vehicle hits the water and starts sinking, drivers and passengers usually have only a very short window of time to save themselves.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a few hundred people die every year in accidents involving vehicle submersion. People are especially in danger in the midst of flash floods and when driving next to bodies of water during adverse conditions, including poor visibility and on roadways that aren’t clearly marked. Drivers may also lose control of their vehicles due to driver distraction, poor vehicle handling, a sudden medical event, or a collision with another vehicle.

If you land in a body of water and your vehicle begins to submerge, the following are some tips that could increase your chances of escape:


  • After the vehicle lands in the water, occupants should remain calm and immediately remove seat belts, open windows (not doors), and try to get out of the vehicle ASAP before more water comes in; go for the closest available window. Within seconds, you may not be able to open a window anymore. Getting out in those first moments improves your chances of survival tremendously.
  • Don’t waste time reaching for your cellphone or any other belongings.
  • If there are children in the vehicle, make sure they’re getting out first. If needed, help free them from their restraints, starting with the older ones and moving to the younger kids. Depending on the situation, you may need to direct children out of a window, pushing them out before you as you escape.
  • Especially if your window opens with electronic controls, you may want to have a specialized tool such as a Life Hammer immediately on hand to break the window in case the wiring in your vehicle shorts from the water.
  • If you find yourself needing to kick open a window, generally the side windows and rear window will break more easily than the windshield will.
  • If going out a window has become impossible for whatever reason, you’ll need to try to use a door. Know that, in a sinking vehicle, you generally won’t be able to open the door until the water pressure is nearly equal inside and outside of the car; this is usually when the water has filled at least most of the interior of the vehicle. If you’ve missed your opportunity to get out a window initially, you may have to try to open the door and escape during this state of equalized pressure and nearly total submersion. You’ll need to do so while holding your breath. By this point, the situation is even more dire, but try to remain as calm and focused as possible. Make sure the doors are unlocked.

Vehicle submersion is a frightening prospect, but it’s worth considering so that you can know what your options are if it happens to you and plan for it.