According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 384 people die each year as the result of what researchers call “submersion crashes”. Many critics claim that the actual number of fatalities is much higher, and are quick to point out that the NHTSA’s estimate does not include deaths that occur from flooding.
Florida leads the nation in deaths caused by submersion crashes. Approximately 4,800 such crashes occur in the state each year, resulting in an average of about 57 deaths.
Contrary to popular belief, however, submersion crashes are not limited to coastal areas. According to the National Weather Service, over the last 30 years “inland flooding has caused more than half of the deaths associated with tropical storms and hurricanes in the United States.” The majority of those deaths have occurred when motorists attempted to drive on or through flooded roadways.
Exiting a submerged vehicle can be difficult, if not impossible, depending on a number of factors.
The advent of power windows gave motorists greater convenience, but made escaping a submerged vehicle much more difficult. In most cases, breaking the window glass is the only option, but automotive safety glass is designed to withstand blunt-force impact.
In the days of manual hand-cranked windows, many people mistakenly held to the belief that they should allow the vehicle to become completely submerged, and then “crack” a side window enough to allow the pressure inside and outside the vehicle to equalize. This, they believed, would allow them to easily open the door and escape the vehicle. Experts now agree that the safest course of action is to exit the vehicle before it sinks.
Safety experts also recommend that motorists keep a small hammer or similar device in an easily accessible location, like the glove box, driver’s door compartment or center console.
Once your vehicle begins to sink, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, many motorists immediately reach for their cell phones to call for help. Most experts agree that the first 30 to 60 seconds following a submersion crash are the most critical. In some cases, power windows cease to work almost immediately after the vehicle’s electrical system comes in contact with water. In some cases, however, power windows will continue to operate properly long enough to allow the occupants to escape the vehicle.
As the vehicle sinks beneath the water, pressure from outside the vehicle builds; making it more difficult to break the side windows, even with the assistance of a hammer or other tool, including a spring-loaded center punch, which can be bought at most home improvement stores for less than $10.