There are more than 36,000 fatal car accidents in the United States each year. Sadly, many of these accidents are avoidable. Distracted driving is among the leading causes of fatal accidents according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and drunk driving, road rage and other poor decisions are to blame for thousands of fatal accidents in the U.S. each year as well.
Many car accident fatalities could be avoided if more drivers and passengers knew what to do in the event of an emergency. Since it’s uncommon to think about the possibility of facing a life-threatening situation on the road, most people never learn what to do in these scenarios. While some situations are tragically inescapable (i.e. if a driver or passenger is knocked unconscious), there are plenty of cases where you can avoid a potentially-fatal accident.
This article covers what to do in four specific scenarios—submersions, rollovers, car fires, and entrapment inside of a vehicle. It also covers what to do (and not do) if someone else needs life-saving assistance following a crash. Finally, it closes with a discussion of some general tips for avoiding and escaping potentially life-threatening situations on the road.
1. How to Escape a Car in Water
If you find yourself in a car in a body of water, you only have a very short amount of time before the car begins to sink. The door sills will be underwater in a matter of seconds, and the entire car will be underwater in a matter of minutes.
Once the car becomes even partially submerged, trying to open the door to escape is no longer your best option. The force of the weight of the water on the outside of the door will far exceed your strength; and, even if you are able to get the door partially open, there is a chance that you could get stuck in the door—with the weight of the water pinning the door against you as you try to escape.
Instead, the best option in the case of a partial or full submersion is typically going to be to go through a window or sunroof. Since water will short-circuit a car’s electrical system, you should try to open a window or sunroof right away. If the car is submerged, water will rush in, so you must take a deep breath and be prepared to swim toward the surface as soon as the window or sunroof is open wide enough to escape.
Once the car’s electrical system fails, you will no longer be able to open a window or sunroof. At this point, you must try to break the glass in order to get out of the vehicle. You can buy a spring-loaded rescue punch to keep in your car just in case of such an emergency; or, if you don’t have one of these, you can use anything hard or sharp to try to break the glass.
Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind:
- Unbuckle your seatbelt first. That way, you will be able to escape the vehicle right away once you have an opening.
- If you can, choose a window or sunroof that is still above the water line. This will make for a much easier escape than dealing with water rushing in.
- Use an escape tool for cutting your seatbelt or breaking a window when needed
2. How to Escape a Rollover Accident
Rollover accidents can happen for a variety of different reasons. Traveling at high speeds, a collision at your vehicle’s front or rear quarter panel, a T-bone collision, and being forced off of the road into a ditch are just a few examples.
With today’s modern vehicles, the passenger cabin should remain relatively intact in the event of a rollover accident. However, deployed airbags, shattered glass, and items thrown about the cabin can still make for a very hectic (and dangerous) situation. Leaking gas is a concern as well; and, if you are able to do so, you should try to escape the vehicle promptly.
In the event of a rollover accident, the first thing you should do is turn off your car’s engine if it is still running. The only exception to this is if you do not have an escape route. In that case, you should try to roll down one of your car’s windows first.
Next, you need to carefully get yourself out of your seatbelt. If you simply unbuckle, you will fall on your head (don’t forget, you are upside down)—and this could potentially knock you unconscious or cause a serious neck or back injury. Brace yourself as best you can with an arm overhead, and then unbuckle when you are ready to do so.
At this point, you should be able to crawl out of the vehicle. If you are stuck for any other reason, you should call for help. If someone comes, tell them that you are stuck so that they do not simply try to pull you out and potentially injure you further. This person should be able to assess whether you need to get out by any means available (i.e. if your car is on fire), or if it is best to wait for emergency personnel to extricate you.
3. How to Escape a Car Fire
If you are involved in a crash and your car catches fire, you must do everything you can to get out of the car as quickly as possible. With that said, if you have a spare moment to do so, you should put your car in park and turn off the engine. Putting your car in park will prevent it from moving while it is on fire, and turning off the engine will stop the flow of gasoline and reduce the risk of an explosion.
In most cases, you will be able to escape a burning car through a door or window. However, if you are trapped inside, you will need to try to break the glass. Use your emergency spring-loaded rescue punch if you have one. If not, use anything you can to score or shatter the glass so that you can kick your way through.
Once you escape a burning vehicle, you should quickly move a safe distance away. Do not go back for any of your belongings. Also, do not open the hood or trunk in order to try to extinguish the fire. Doing so will give the fire more oxygen, and this will worsen the fire (if not lead to an explosion).
What if you have a fire extinguisher in your vehicle? While you may be able to use a fire extinguisher to put out a small fire, your safety needs to be your first priority. You can try to use the fire extinguisher if you have time, but also understand that there is a good chance the fire started from a location you cannot see. As a result, even if you think you can get the fire out, you should still move away from the vehicle and call 911. You should not attempt to restart your car until the issue that led to the fire has been diagnosed and fixed.
4. How to Escape if Your Doors and Windows Won’t Open
If your car’s electrical system fails, you could find yourself trapped inside. When this happens, the most-important thing you need to remember is not to panic. If your car is not submerged and it is not on fire, you have some time to deal with your situation.
If you have your phone, dial 911 and call for help. If you have AAA or any other roadside assistance program, you can call the emergency roadside number as well.
If you don’t have your phone (or if your phone doesn’t have service), try to get someone’s attention. If your horn is functioning, honk until someone comes to see what is wrong. Once they do, explain that you are trapped inside, and ask them to call for help.
In the event that calling for help isn’t an option or doesn’t work, you will need to find a way to exit the vehicle. This may mean breaking one of your car’s windows. Using an emergency rescue punch is the best option if you have one. If you don’t have one of these, then look for something else. Objects that can be used to break a car window include:
- A headrest (if you pull a headrest out completely, you may be able to use the metal rods that hold it in place to break the glass)
- A seat belt buckle
- A rock or pebble (even a very small rock or pebble in your footwell may be enough to score the glass so that you can kick through with your foot)
- Metal water bottles, tools and anything else you may happen to have in your car
If you have a car with a trunk, you may also be able to use the trunk’s emergency latch. You should be able to fold the back seats down by pulling up on the release next to each headrest, and then the trunk’s emergency latch should have a plastic handle near the rear of the car.
5. How to Help Others After a Car Accident
When you are involved in a serious car accident or find yourself in any other emergency scenario, you need to prioritize your own safety. If you are not able to escape, then you will not be able to help anyone else escape, either.
With that said, once you get free—or if you are simply a witness to a serious accident—you should do what you can safely to help others who are trapped. If you need to break a window, find a rock or other object. Be careful not to hit the window too hard, as this could cause broken glass to injure those inside.
If anyone in the car is stuck, unconscious, or unable to move, only try to extricate them if it is necessary to do so (i.e. if the car is sinking or on fire). Otherwise, call 911 and let the police, firefighters and EMTs do their jobs. In many cases, calling 911 is the best thing you can do to help others who are in need. If you extricate anyone from the vehicle, move them a safe distance away from the vehicle and the road (if you can), and then wait until emergency personnel arrive.
6. How to Survive Car Accidents in Other Scenarios
There are numerous other scenarios in which you can find yourself facing an emergency in your car. Your car breaks down on a remote road and you find yourself stranded. You are involved in an accident with a tanker truck that spills a flammable chemical on the road. A hurricane is coming, it is raining heavily, and you spin off of the road when your tires lose traction.
In these scenarios, knowing what to do can be the difference between life and death. This includes not only knowing what to do after an emergency arises, but also knowing what to do to prevent an emergency situation.
Learning safe driving practices, emergency driving maneuvers and what to do in various emergency situations are all ways you can help protect yourself and your loved ones on the road. It is also a good idea to have an emergency kit in your vehicle. This kit should include an emergency rescue punch, fire extinguisher, emergency blanket, and water—along with basic first aid supplies. You can buy a car emergency kit online, or you can gather supplies yourself. Once you have everything you need, make sure you know how it all works, and then be sure to put it in a location where you can access it without exiting your vehicle.
This article provides general tips for surviving potentially-fatal car accidents. Different or additional life-saving measures may be necessary under particular scenarios. If possible, you should always call 911 after a car accident, and you should rely on the assistance of experienced professionals whenever possible.
Contact Maus Law Firm
Maus Law Firm is a Fort Lauderdale personal injury law firm that represents car accident victims and their families. If you have questions about your legal rights after a car accident in Florida, you can call 855-910-9454 or contact us online for a free and confidential consultation.