How to Escape a Sinking Car: An Illustrated Guide

by AoM Team on December 5, 2013 · 33 Comments

in Cars, Manly Skills, Survival, Visual Guides

1. Stay calm. On average, you’ll have 30-120 seconds of float time before the car sinks. That’s plenty of time to escape if you act quickly.  2. Don’t open door. It’s possible to escape this way, but difficult to do even in just a foot of water. Car will also sink immediately after, making it impossible for passengers to escape.  3. Remember four words: “Seatbelts. Children. Windows. Out.” First, unbuckle your seatbelt. If buckle is stuck, cut it off.  4. Make sure children and passengers can get out of their seatbelts. Guide and instruct them to exit through their own window if possible, or else pull them to the front of the car.  5. Escape through window. Try rolling it down first. If that doesn’t work, use an auto rescue tool to safely shatter the window. It’s nearly impossible to break using your arms or legs.  6. Swim out through the window and to safety. This can call be done in well under 30 seconds if you stay calm and have mentally rehearsed the scenario before it happens.

Web This post is brought to you by the T3 Tactical Auto Rescue Tool. It has everything you need to escape from a sinking car including a seatbelt cutter and window breaker.
What’s this?

Nearly 12% of the bridges in the United States have been deemed “structurally deficient” by the Federal Highway Administration. It’s scary to think that one might collapse while you’re driving over it, plunging your car into the water below. Becoming a victim of bridge collapse is hardly the only way to end up in a submerged vehicle, however. Many drivers simply skid out around a curve, go over a guard rail, and end up in a body of water. According to some studies, over 10,000 water immersion auto accidents happen each year.

Finding yourself in a sinking vehicle can be a terrifying experience and panic can keep you from being able to escape. Memorize these easy-to-follow tips so you can stay calm and get out quickly and safely if this ever happens to you.

For more details on escaping a sinking car, check out this post.

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ethan C. December 5, 2013 at 7:18 pm

What do you do if you don’t have a window-breaker tool? What’s the best possible improvised tool for the job?

2 Sugapablo December 5, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I do live in Pittsburgh, so… :)

3 Dylan December 5, 2013 at 8:39 pm


You can’t open the doors initially because of the pressure of the water pressing on the door from the outside. So keep calm, let water fill the cabin to equalize the pressure, then open the door and swim up.

4 Nate December 5, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Buy yourself an emergency knife now before you need it and store it in your glovebox. $30 worth of preparedness now is worth tens of thousands in funeral costs and counseling later.

5 LPB December 5, 2013 at 9:41 pm

How often do seat belts “jam”?

I understand cutters for rescue people reaching inside the car, especially if there’s fire.

Hopefully, you’re not sinking AND still burning.

6 Dave December 5, 2013 at 11:27 pm

This is the best non-tool way to do it:

Skip to 28 seconds….and excuse the japanese.

7 Chris December 5, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Ethan –

The metal prongs on a headrest will work. Just pull the headrest out of the seat and jab into the window.

8 Griff December 6, 2013 at 8:35 am

That’s an awesome tip about the head rests! Has anyone seen Chris and MacGyver in the same room?

I have the Benchmade seatbelt cutter:

And a Gerber knife with a window punch (I can’t find the link to the knife I have). All compliments of the USMC while I was serving. My wife, also a Marine has the same set in her vehicle.

A solid one-tool-stop would be:

9 John Watts December 6, 2013 at 8:55 am

LPB – They almost never jam, but when people panic under extreme stress sometimes they can’t work the button/release properly and freak out, thinking they’re jammed.

Having been a first responder, I prefer the spring loaded window punches, they require less effort than the ones you have to strike into the window. You might be injured after a car accident and unable to strike the window with enough force to break it, even with a breaker tool. There are also inexpensive models (look on amazon) that clip discretely to a seat belt and include a cutter, so it is always within reach. Again, after an accident you might not be able to get into your glove box for whatever reason.

Good post!

10 Spencer December 6, 2013 at 11:53 am

To Ethan C. I saw on a show, Worst case scenario with Bear Grylls, that you can use your car headrest to break the window. I’ve never tried it but the concept seems like it should work.

11 Jack December 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm

You can use you car headrest to break the window

12 Zach December 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Also sparkplugs can be used in a jam the ceramic piece is much more dense than window. I’ve seen people tape them to the ice scrapers to puncture windows in a fire situation.

13 thomas December 6, 2013 at 1:06 pm

you could also try using your car keys and strike the window with them

14 Moeregaard December 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm

The sketches appear to show a late ’70s/early ’80s Chrysler Cordoba, so I’m thinking about all that rich Corinthian leather heading for Davey Jones’ locker….

15 JC December 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm

You will likely drown if you wait until the cabin fills up. I’d open the door immediately after hitting the water to escape. They had an episode of this scenario on mythbusters:

16 Austin December 6, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I read an article that suggest in removing your head rest and using that to break you car window, in the event you don’t have a window punch.

17 Foco December 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Ever seen this??? You should escape as soon as possible !

18 jrh December 6, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Yes, thanks I was just going to reference the Top Gear test. Long story short, I must emphatically disagree with much of whats here. IF you have a window breaking tool then yes, use that. Otherwise, DOOR DOOR DOOR! Don’t think. Just go.

Most of our cars have electric windows. Those windows are highly likely to short out when you get in the water.

Yes the water pressure against the door can pin it shut. As the episode shows, waiting for that pressure to equalize doesn’t work because it takes too long. You basically have to hit the bottom and wait before the door will finally open. Too late by then.

So, your only real option (if you can’t smash the window) is open the door immediately, as in less than 20 seconds, before the water has a chance to pin the door shut. No hesitation, you need to get that door open immediately. Sure, the car will sink, but you have a much better chance of getting out and swimming free one the door is at least open.

19 Richardson M December 6, 2013 at 2:26 pm

If I smash the window, won’t the broken pieces of window come rushing in upon me? And if I swim out the window, won’t I be gouged to death by shards?

20 stealthrider December 6, 2013 at 2:45 pm

ok great, that sounds Reaal easy when you Just luckily happen to Have a Seatbelt Cutter and an Auto Rescue Breaking Tool with you at all times??

21 J December 6, 2013 at 3:01 pm

How do you ensure that you are swimming toward the surface? A lot of times vehicles will flip and twist on their way down from a bridge, leaving the people disoriented. I’m guessing you blow bubbles and follow them?

22 Robert December 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Richardson M, the glass on the side windows in tempered so the window will shatter into a thousand tiny pieces that can cut you but will not maim you. This is also why it’s nearly impossible to break with your hands or feet, tempered glass is much tougher than standard glass.

Ethan C. we usually keep a multitool in our center console. Use the knife to cut your seatbelt if neededs. Then, fold it into needle nose pliers, hold it with a fist, and then jab the pointy end into the glass. The force will be concentrated into the tip to damage the glass. The damaged tempered glass will usually fail immediately, allowing you to escape.

23 Jeremy Anderberg December 6, 2013 at 3:36 pm

@jrh –

Thanks for the input, and you certainly make some valid points. While using the door CAN work, it’s significantly more difficult. Even in just a foot of water, the pressure on the door is 500-600 pounds per square inch. It’s definitely possible, but if it doesn’t work, you’ve exerted all your energy. While there are two schools of experts on this matter — door vs window — the latest research has window winning the battle hands down. This includes police and rescue personnel.

In research, the vast majority of cars will float for that 30-120 second window. In that time (and even up to a few minutes underwater), electric windows should work. And if there are passengers, the door is absolutely not the way to go because the car will immediately sink. So while there may be situations where the above info isn’t necessarily your best bet, in the vast majority, you’ll be able to open the window and get out quickly.

As for if you have a rescue tool — I guess the question is why wouldn’t you? The model featured is a high-end product, but you can get cheaper keychain versions for $10. Seems like it’d be worth every penny to me! The door option should be a last resort, based on the articles, research, and case studies we read to make sure this guide was accurate.

24 Justin J December 6, 2013 at 5:08 pm

You can take the headrest off of your seat (if possible), use one of the metal rods to stick down between the window and door and press down (as if you’re prying it apart) and it should shatter relatively easily. Here’s a video (sorry, it’s in Japanese, but you can see what I’m talking about):

25 Manuel December 6, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Get a life hammer:

26 Bjarke December 6, 2013 at 5:58 pm

If, for some reason you don’t have a tool for breaking the window and you can’t get a headrest out, you can wrap your belt around you foot and kick the window with the beltbuckle. Though quite a bit more difficult it is still preferable to drowning.

If you are confident that you can remove your seatbelt, then you should keep it on as you smash the window, because the force of the water rushing in can be quite substantial and throw you around inside the car. You really don’t want to be disoriented. If you’re confused to which way is up, try releasing a bubble of air – it should always flow upwards.

Pretty solid infographic as always, though.

27 kusuriya December 6, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Ethan C.
If you dont have one you can use a Phillips screwdriver and something to hammer on it or something with a similarly sharp point that you can hammer on.

28 Kusuriya December 6, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Richardson M.
Tempered automotive glass is designed to shatter into tiny squares to prevent just what you described. If you look at an automotive window under a magnifying glass you can often see the little seems of the tiny glass pellets between the laminate. This was done thanks to all the people that died terrible deaths from glass windshields shattering into shards and impaling the occupants.

29 Teej December 7, 2013 at 3:06 am

You can remove your car’s headrest from the seat and use those two metal prongs to smash the window if you don’t have a hammer!

30 Phillip December 7, 2013 at 7:29 pm

I live around in a rural area with deep ditches.

Every year during winter a car will slip on ice and go into 4′ of water -sometimes upside down. Victims often die.

1. Nighttime (poor visibility)
2. Freezing conditions
3. Panic (knife becomes dislodged/lost)

31 Jason Koller December 9, 2013 at 11:35 am

It would be amazing to have these kinds of guides on laminated cards.
Index or business card size would be great.
I’d buy a set of them.

32 Tom White December 20, 2013 at 8:22 am

Hi, thanks for the article,

About 10 years ago I wrote a letter to Saab (RIP). I suggested that they develop a flotation device that would right and float a car that had gone into a canal or lake.

I would think it would be even easier to develop such technology today. South Florida alone would be a vast market as I am sure would be Europe, especially the Netherlands. Get back to me if I can assist in the ad campaign.

33 Tom P February 10, 2014 at 2:35 am

Often when a car goes into water it flips upside down due to the weight of the engine. Take a look at the Mythbusters episode on this.

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