What if Your Car Ends Up in the Water?

Posted on May 28, 2013


The rather disconcerting collapse of a bridge span on I-5 in Washington State should be a wake-up call about our nation’s infrastructure, says the National Transportation Safety Board.  We were lucky this time; no one was killed, although at least two vehicles did end up in the water along with the bridge wreckage.

It’s not like this was a surprise, really.  Last year, according to USA Today, The Federal Highway Administration reported that some 11% of our nation’s bridges are structurally deficient, requiring close monitoring and inspections.  And even before that, in 2007, the FHA reported that 12% were deficient.  That was the same year that a similar steel-truss bridge on I-35 in Minnesota collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 and injuring 145.

I have given thought to cars in the water before; one snowy afternoon on the way home from school, the car in which I was a passenger spun out of control on an icy bridge, slamming into the railing.  The railing held, but it’s amazing how fast thoughts can rush through your mind as you hurtle toward the edge:  remember to unfasten your seat belt after you hit the water, you will need to roll down the window, how long will this car float? It’s cold, we probably have less than five minutes… can you swim for shore?  Is there anything under the bridge that you can climb onto?  Oh, thank God.  We’re still on the bridge.

The bridge on which that accident occurred (and no fault of the bridge!) was replaced some years ago, but too many other, high-traffic bridges have not.  The 2007 collapse, and now this latest one in Washington State, have me thinking about it again.  Hopefully this will never happen to me, but giving it a little serious thought in advance costs nothing and might be crucial one day.

Popular Mechanics has obligingly published an article on how to escape submerged vehicles.  Have a look, and be sure to watch the eye-opening video that accompanies the article:

One thing that author John Galvin mentions is a tool for breaking glass (this could be handy in other circumstances, too).  In addition to the usual warning triangle and first aid kit, Lila has long kept her little multi-tool within reach in the car, but now there is also a “rescue knife” which includes a locking blade, a seat belt cutter, and a glass-break tool.  It’s certainly not a very handy pocket knife for everyday use, but at less than $10, one of these things is well worth having in the car. There are also handy key chain tools like the ResQMe, but my keychain is clunky enough already.

As long as we’re giving a little serious thought to things that we hope will never happen to us, give some thought to how to use the glass break tool.  There are a number of demonstration videos on YouTube; nearly all of them show some macho wannabes jabbing right in the center of the glass, and while it gets the job done, it seems that a lot of them end up with glass exploding everywhere.  That stuff is sharp!  No, no, no.  There is a better way.  Check out Paul Markel’s video which has some good pointers on breaking glass safely and on cutting seat belts easily.  The two big takeaways are:  break the corner of the glass, not the center, then clear the glass away from that point; and when cutting seatbelts, go at a 45° angle, not straight across.

A little preparation, mental rehearsal, and having some key tools on hand is well worth the investment of a little time and ten bucks or so.  Here’s hoping you will never need it!