Dear Tom and Ray:
Recently, my Sunday ladies poker group was talking about last summer's bridge-collapse tragedy in Minneapolis. We were glad -- and amazed -- that so many people survived, especially the people who were in cars in the water. We wondered if there are certain steps that you take when you are in a car about to enter water. Since we live in Philadelphia, a city that has identified many deficient bridges -- especially the bridges we take to vacation at the Jersey shore -- we were wondering about the physics and engineering of escaping a car that seems destined to enter water. Can you give us any advice? Thanks from all of us, and if you ever find yourself in the Philadelphia area on the first Sunday of the month, join us for the game.
TOM: Thanks, Ellen. We would love to join you for poker. But I should warn you that my brother is a horrible cheat -- especially if removing clothing is involved.
RAY: Neither of us has actually driven a car into deep water, so we don't have any personal experience from which to draw.
TOM: Which is surprising, since we've driven cars into pretty much everything else.
RAY: Those who actually know something about escaping from a car in deep water suggest that there are certain things you should do.
TOM: You probably won't have time to do anything as you're heading into the water. I mean, if you DID have time, you'd spend it trying to steer the car away from the water, right?
RAY: You certainly don't want to remove the seat belt in anticipation of an escape. Hitting water is not that far off from hitting a wall, so the car will decelerate suddenly, just like it would in an accident, and you'll need that seat belt.
TOM: Once you're in the water, your car will not sink immediately. You'll have at least a minute or two before you're actually under water. So the first thing to do is open your window, and the windows of any passengers.
RAY: Even IN the water, your electric windows will continue to work for a few minutes. So get them open.
TOM: Next, unbuckle your seat belt. If you have kids in the back, unbuckle their seat belts, too. And keep in mind that some rear windows don't go down all the way, so rear passengers might have to exit through the front, too. And then when you're ready, go out the window and swim to safety.
RAY: If you did not or cannot open the window for any reason, you can try to break it. But that's not easy. Nor is pushing out the windshield with your feet.
TOM: If you are in a car that's sinking and you can't open or break a window, try not to panic. At that point, you'll have to wait until the car is pretty much underwater before trying the door. You can see why this is the less appealing scenario!
RAY: Once you're in the water, the pressure pushing against the door from all that water on the outside will make it nearly impossible for you to open the door. Your only choice is to wait until the car is full of water, and the pressure is equalized. While you're waiting, you'll find an air bubble at the top of the passenger compartment, near the roof.
TOM: Once the car is full of water, take a deep breath, brace yourself and use your feet to try to push the door open. It still won't be easy. Expect it to move slowly.
RAY: And by that point, the car might be heading down, nose first, since the engine makes the front end the heavy end.
TOM: So your best bet is to get that window open as quickly as possible. That's your surest escape route.
RAY: If there are readers out there who have survived a car-in-the-water experience, we'd be interested in hearing your stories and whether this advice worked for you. If we get some stories that are instructive, we'll share them with you in future columns.