How To Escape a Submerged Vehicle (with drills)

submerged vehicleOne of the most terrifying things you may ever experience is having to escape a submerged vehicle.  If you ever find yourself in this situation it’s a bad time to realize you don’t have a clue about how to accomplish this.

This is where some knowledge, and training comes in handy. Both breed confidence, and that will make you calmer when the situation arises. Your secret weapon is staying calm. It’s your saving grace.

HUET trainingI passed the HUET course as a Marine. Helicopter Underwater Egress Training. It was one of the most fun, yet most high anxiety experiences of my young adult life.  Everything about it tells you “this isn’t right”, and it indeed makes you anxious. However, it was fun because who doesn’t like being seat-belted into a helicopter fuselage and having it dunked into a huge pool only to have it rotated upside down? Or even better, who doesn’t like doing all that BLINDFOLDED? Exactly.

Training and knowledge do indeed make bad situations less scary. Everything moves fast, you may have 30 seconds or less to get all this done, so practice makes perfect.  Of course, yYou don’t have to submerge a vehicle to practice. Keep it simple. You can practice in your garage or in a parking lot. The physical mechanics can become muscle memory if done enough times. That said, here are some suggestions for escaping a submerged vehicle:

  • Stay Calm
  • Prepare for impact & cold water
  • Roll down windows & unlock doors
  • Find your points of reference
  • Unfasten seat belt
  • Wait for car to fill up or egress as soon as possible
  • Headcount

1.Stay Calm

Good Lord. Another guy telling you to “stay calm” in one of the most horrific events in your life. I know it’s cliche, but it’s true. You absolutely must do your best to stay calm. Freaking out will cloud your judgement and slow your reaction time so just do your best. If you have passengers, tell (not ask) them to stay calm, and project confidence. Speak in an even tone and calmly tell them what to do next. (Pro tip: training will give you confidence and help you stay calm)

2. Prepare for impact & cold water

If you see the water coming, prepare for the impact and stay seat-belted in.  Put your back, neck and head totally against the back rest of your seat. Put your feet flat on the floor board of your car, and instruct everyone to follow suit. If you are already at a stop and the water is entering your vehicle, or you are in the process of submerging, mentally accept the fact that the water will be cold. Don’t let the cold water freak you out. Accept it. Think past it to what comes after that.

3. Roll down windows & unlock doors!

Do this as early as you can, ESPECIALLY if you have electric windows/door locks. The electronics in your car may not function properly once your vehicle submerges, so your window may not come down or your doors unlock. Additionally once the water hits your window, the external water pressure will push the window against the rails in the door, and even manually rolling them down may seem difficult if at all possible. So unlock your doors, roll down your windows early if possible. Don’t forget the BACK windows/locks if you have passengers back there! If you have small children in the car, now would be a good time to get them out of the car seat, or have them jump up front with you and sit in your lap. Pets too.

4. Find your point of reference!!

You must find your points of reference. This is absolutely paramount for escaping a submerged vehicle. We learned this the hard way in the HUET course. When a vehicle is under water, it’s cold, wet, dark and confusing. I’ve seen trained men freak out because they got disorientated and could not tell up from down, in from out, or left from right. Obtaining reference points is as simple as taking a look around and grabbing two things that clearly give you a sense of direction.

Don’t over think it. Keep it simple. It may be the steering wheel with your right hand, and the door frame with your left. If you are a passenger, it may be the seat in front of you with one hand, and the door frame with the hand nearest the door. Doing this gives you bearing, and something to PULL yourself and PUSH yourself out with. Mentally decide which hand leads the way out.

5. Unfasten your seat belts

Do this AFTER any impact or rotation has happened and your point of references identified with hands on. If the car is settled on a flooded roadway or sinking in water, unfasten your seat belts as soon as you have doors unlocked and windows down. This is done with ONE hand while keeping your other hand on one of your points of reference. As soon as you have the belt undone, immediately place your hand back on the point of reference it was on. You can grab your open window with one hand, and the steering wheel with the other and then wait for motion to settle or stop.

DRILL: Everything to this point can be practiced in your garage. This is called a “Dry run”. Write down a scenario, and take turns with a friend or family member(s) verbally describing what is happening. Start slow and work your way to faster, more extreme scenarios. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Steps 1-5 can and should be practiced blindfolded eventually and can all happen in as little as 5 seconds, or up to 20 or more seconds if the vehicle is rotating underwater. It really just depends.

6. Wait for the car to fill up or egress as soon as possible

This is where knowledge meets judgement.  You have two options: bail out as soon as you have windows down/doors unlocked, or wait until the submerged vehicle fills up, take your final DEEP breath and then escape.  In the early option you may be sinking slowly, or the water may be rising slowly. You have time, stay calm, relax and think of your next move. Your windows are down, your doors unlocked, and you can either climb out the window, or push a door open. Remember, the higher the water rises outside a submerged vehicle, the harder it will be to get that door open.

In the second option, waiting till the car fills up, you are likely sinking fast, or are already submerged and the car is just filling up. Waiting till the car fills may help you here because the pressure outside the vehicle is greater than the pressure inside. Thus, pushing the door open before the car fills up will be harder. After the car fills up, the pressure is more equalized and the door should be more easy to open. Of course, don’t forget to take that last BIG breath before it fills completely (usually when the water reaches your neck/chin).  NOTE: if you were unable to roll down a window or open a door, a “window break” may be prudent. Google “window center punch” to see a tool firefighters use to break windows. Keep one in your center console.

DRILL: Obviously, your car filling up with water should not be literally practiced, but you can have a friend verbally run you through a drill. Have him or her tell you where the water is while you react accordingly. Start slow, offer different variables (one arm broken, an unconscious passenger, child in back seat, etc). When you feel proficient, do it blindfolded. Submerged vehicles are often dark.


At last, it’s time to egress. You’ve done all the above successfully, and you’ve given instructions to your passengers. Your door or window is open, and you’ve all taken one last giant breath. Push the children and/or pets out first, then follow directly behind using your points of reference. You may be able to egress WITH your child/pets if they are small. Of course, DO NOT WORRY ABOUT MATERIAL POSSESSIONS.  Your life and the lives of those in the vehicle take priority to say the least.

There is no other logic to accept here. As you leave the submerged vehicle, give one last push with your legs against the vehicle if possible to get completely clear of it as you swim to the surface. Be mindful of any debris that may be there. Swim with your hand in front of you if you can. Break the water with your hands, not your head.

8. Headcount

Immediately do a headcount when you break surface. Ask “Is everyone out”? Look and listen to see who is missing. Have everyone sound-off by asking them if they are ok. Have them to say their name and identify anyone with them who is unable to speak. If someone is missing I cannot tell you what to do, but obviously you have two choices. You can either go back down and search the wreckage, or allow first-responders to search. One option requires you to be a good if not strong swimmer, the others benefit relies on how fast help arrives. These are YOUR choices. Choose wisely.

DRILL: Sit down with your family and talk about this. Go over NOW how to perform an effective headcount and how they should respond. This is not specific to submerged vehicles. This can be used in almost any high stress scenario where visibility and accountability may be compromised.

In conclusion, we highly recommend you take a basic CPR class now if you have not already done so. Don’t wait until after a situation like this happens to see the value in that. By then it may be too late. Your local Fire Dept may teach CPR classes. Contact them to find out if they do. The YMCA may offer a basic rescue swimming class, ask about that.

EgressThere it is. Our suggestions and points-of-view for escaping a submerged vehicle.  They are in no way meant to be the final say in the subject, as I’m sure others may have different ideas or training on how to egress a submerged vehicle.  If you use the “window break” method there will likely be glass still left on the edges of the window frame, thus any egress made through that opening may result in lacerations and/or scrapes. Keep this in mind. (I say better cut than dead, but that’s just me).

Good luck, as always. Train like you mean it.

Ne Te Quaesiveris Extra.



Related posts

One Thought to “How To Escape a Submerged Vehicle (with drills)”

  1. Jackie Parker

    Awesome! Thank you

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.