How to escape a sinking car

When news reports started to come in that a car with a mother and three children had plunged into the Tweed River and only one child had escaped, many parents felt a pang of fear.

After the car was pulled from the water and it became apparent that Stephanie King had died trying to save her children, that pang of fear grew into a need for answers.

What would they do if they found themselves in that situation with their children strapped into the backseat? What could they do?

Videos began appearing on social media feeds of parents who had searched the internet for answers.

One of the most common of these videos was from a North American television station and featuring Dr Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor at Canada's University of Manitoba.

Dr Giesbrecht is recognised as a world leader in research into submerged vehicle escape.

He told ABC Local Radio that he had conducted more submerged vehicle scenarios than anyone else in the world and has, in the name of research, driven a car into water at 40km/hr in order to experience and demonstrate the scenarios he writes about.

Very little research on escaping sinking cars

Dr Giesbrecht's interest in the subject of escaping submerged vehicles began when he was asked to be an expert witness at an inquest in 2005.

A snowplough had broken through ice into a lake in North America and the driver had drowned.

"One of the things that came up as I was preparing was that there was very little research done on vehicle submersions," Dr Giesbrecht said.

"And what was done was very sparse."

Dr Giesbrecht now believes that half of what he said at that inquest was wrong.

"I thought it was [right] but after that, we did a series of studies called Operation Alive: Automobile Submersion, Lessons in Vehicle Escape and we learned a whole lot of things," he said.

Most common response is not best one

According to Dr Giesbrecht, the most common instinct when in a submerged car is to keep the doors and windows shut, resulting in what he called a "death trap".

He said most people still believed that if they let the vehicle fill with water, the pressure will equalise and it will be possible to open the car's doors.

"The problem is, by then you will probably have drowned," Dr Giesbrecht said.

He explained that a car is stable upright, so even if a car enters the water upside down, it will finish upright but the car will tilt, heavy end down.

"For most cars, the engine is in the front so it will tilt forward," he said.

The water pressure against the doors of the car means they will not able to be opened and once the water is pushing against the windows, they can not be operated either.

Dr Giesbrecht said once that happened, a person inside the vehicle would be trapped.

"You've got a front and rear windshield, you've got four doors and four side windows and none of them are useful to you," he said.

"But you still might have one to two minutes of air left inside the vehicle, so it becomes a very tragic and scary situation."

Advice from expert

Dr Giesbrecht's advice is simple.

"Seatbelts, windows, out — children first. That means, get your seatbelts off, then get the windows open," he said.

He said even if the car's windows were electric, they would work for at least 10 to 60 seconds.

Once the windows are open, help children or others who may need assistance, out of the vehicle.

"Especially with children, push them out of the window ahead of you, then follow them," Dr Giesbrecht said.

If there are multiple children, his advice is to go from oldest to youngest.

While this may defy a parent's instinct to help the younger children first, Dr Giesbrecht said older children could then be instructed to climb out and hold on as the adult gets younger children out.

Know what to do before it happens

Dr Giesbrecht believes people should know what to do before they find themselves in a situation like this.

"What happens in a fire? Stop, drop and roll, everybody knows that," he said.

He believes knowing what to do if your vehicle ends up in the water should be a similarly well-known mantra.

"The time to figure out what to do is not when your vehicle is in the water," he said.

In both Australia and North America, a significant portion of drownings in vehicles are from people driving into flooded roads.

Dr Giesbrecht said this was especially tragic.

"Your vehicle can float in as little as half a meter of water [so] never drive into water," he warned.

He has been working with an inventor who has developed an automatic window opening system for cars.

"It senses when a vehicle is in water and actually opens the electric windows," he said.

He believed the best-case scenario would be for the system to be mandatory in the manufacture of all new cars, in the same way seatbelts were.

"That would save a lot of lives."

Dr Giesbrecht's advice

  • Seatbelt off
  • Windows down
  • Children out, oldest first