In 1961 a study conducted by the Michigan State police and Indiana University concluded that 400 people a year died trapped in their vehicles under water in North America. It has been 45 years since that story. The numbers remain about the same year after year.
Online, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA, posts statistics it collects through its Fatality Analysis Reporting System or FARS website. Currently available online is data dating back to 1994. According to FARS, since 1994, an average of 300 people have died due to vehicle immersion drowning in this country every year. All tolled, in North America, every year for the past forty years, more than 300 people a year have perished trapped in their cars underwater.
It is apparent, that since the passenger compartment of the automobile was first enclosed, tens of thousands of people worldwide have died because they couldn’t escape their vehicle as it slipped beneath the surface of a lake, or river, or canal, or swimming pool or any body of water that will allow a vehicle to completely submerge. In many unfortunate situations, people have drowned in water that they could stand in. Florida holds the distinction of having more vehicle immersion deaths than any other state in the country. A recent news article featured the Delray Beach Fire Department’s Water Rescue Team. In the story, the reporter noted that since its inception in 1988, the team has responded to around 15 calls a year where a car is completely submerged in water with someone trapped inside. In 2006 the first person was pulled out alive. This stark detail shows that it is nearly impossible for emergency services to get to an accident of this nature in time to save a life. The responsibility to get out must lie with the occupants of the vehicle.
The sad part of all of this is that there is an abundance of available evidence that readily establishes that this is an extremely survivable accident most of the time. In higher speed accidents where a vehicle goes into the water, the vehicle bears the brunt of any impact in a way that isolates the occupants from serious injury. The water decelerates said vehicle instead of causing an abrupt stop. Occupants are often very fit to enact their own self rescue. As it turns out, this is a surprisingly simple procedure. Exit the vehicle and swim to safety. The one thing that is sure to prevent success is the inability to exit the vehicle.
Interestingly enough, in a surprising number of cases, vehicles enter the water at a relatively low speed. These accidents are sometimes the result of people making a wrong decision to enter a body of water, making a wrong turn, putting a vehicle in the wrong gear or other reasons that cause relatively benign, trauma free accidents.
Regardless of the methodology that puts a vehicle in the water, it is well established that a high number of these vehicle immersion accidents are survivable due to the number of people that are seen trying to escape entrapment by beating on the glass. These stories are often shared again and again by witnesses that are incapable of helping. Another survivability indicator is the percentage of bodies that are found in the very back part of the vehicle. This is relevant because in most cases an engine pushes the front end of the vehicle down which causes an air bubble to rise and settle toward the now elevated rear of the vehicle. People that can’t break out of the sinking car follow the air pocket until it is all gone or polluted to the point that it can no longer sustain life. Few people realize that fluids in the engine compartment that are lighter than water make their way into the passenger compartment through holes in the floorboard making the air unbreathable.
Despite the previous two explanations, the main reason that we know with absolute certainty, that in most cases this is a survivable accident is the fact that an estimated ten thousand vehicles a year end up in the water. Other than the approximately three hundred tragedies a year where the victims die, everyone else survives. It appears that the main difference between the people that live and those that die is an occupant’s ability to exit a vehicle.
Technology has lead to some painful consequences regarding vehicle immersion drowning. In all too many recent accidents, people have had time to call loved ones or rescue services on their cell phone. The calls have run the gamut from remorseful farewells from people that have conceded their fate knowing full well that no one can get there in time to hysterical pleading from people terrified of the fate that they realize awaits them. One interesting call from a KCBS radio reporter from San Francisco named Doug Sovern went unanswered for nearly twenty minutes. Doug, while sinking ever further into the water was put on hold. As water filled the passenger compartment, Doug listened to a recording. Doug’s call was to 911. In the end, he found a resource that allowed him to save himself http://www.escapetip.blogspot.com/ (scroll down to “Against all Odds”) He got out by breaking the glass.
Over the years, I’ve documented the deaths of infants to seniors, ordinary people to government officials. I’ve recorded anomalies like the family that stopped to look at the lake Susan Smith used to drown her children only to roll into the water themselves, become trapped, and die. Some stories touched me like the one about a young United States Marine named Ryan Zimmerman who was just going to be at home on leave for a few days over the holidays. This homecoming turned out to be his last http://www.escapetip.blogspot.com/ (scroll down to the story that features his name in the title.) A story of Sharon Stone’s near tragedy on the set of a movie, reminded me that no one is immune. My thoughts sometimes wander to the loss of a Doctor named Karen Gilhooly from Michigan. Karen was driving her daughter along with two of the child’s dearest friends to a dance performance. In the dark of night she made one wrong turn and slipped into the water. She was probably traveling a five miles an hour as she entered the water. Too late she realized something was wrong and tried to back out. We know this because her car was recovered with the transmission in reverse. Three families shattered because of a right turn when she needed a left. I can only imagine happenings inside the car as the realization set in that nothing could be done. Like so many accidents that I have chronicled, this was not the first vehicle submersion death at this location.
In the years that I have been doing this, I have seen a full spectrum of ideas to combat this problem. In Florida, tens of millions of dollars are being spent to erect barriers to stop this problem. Since the barriers have been going up, I still record stories of death in Florida. I’ve seen where a vehicle went over the barrier and ended up in the water anyway as well as vehicles that went into the water in locations where no barriers stand. Barriers are expensive, restrictive, ugly and present a false sense of security. There is no doubt that they will save lives but at what cost?
I’ve seen all kinds of ideas for new and improved systems to be added to vehicles to combat this issue. One system suggested huge airbags deploy to keep the vehicle afloat. A second system that I had to question was one that rolled all of the windows down if a vehicle was submerging. I had to wonder what a parent with several kids would do as water came rushing in and their kids were strapped through three rows of a minivan. I’ve seen automatic this, and automatic that and new and improved this and new and improved that and on, and on, and on….
Looking at many of these solutions, I am reminded of the space shuttle program. The best of intentions, billions of dollars in the world’s most sophisticated equipment, and a legacy marred by an “O” ring costing a few bucks. I’m reminded of the Crown Victoria. This car had a single weakness exposed do to the fact that when used for police work, cars are sometime rear ended at high speed causing violent crashes that in these cases ignited fuel. I’m reminded that sometimes ferry doors don’t seal causing them to flood and the boat sinks. I’m reminded that engines are known to fall of airplanes on occasion and even in modern warfare there are still friendly fire incidents. All this leads anyone like me with average intelligence to conclude that despite the very best of intentions, systems sometimes fail. In an automobile, if the failed system is a luxury like air conditioning, the result is an inconvenience. If a safety system fails, it could spell a trip to the hospital or morgue.
In the end, It has amazed me that a simple, practical, effective, inexpensive way to give people that are ready and able to break out of a vehicle, the means to do so has been so thoroughly disregarded. I’m confounded that a solution that could be immediately made available to start saving lives has been ignored while experts strain to perfect systems that would cost markedly more money.
The solution that I talk about is called the Escape Tip™. It is a tiny, unobtrusive addition to the male end or latch plate of a seatbelt assembly. In hundreds of tests, several performed under the watchful eye of television news coverage, the Escape Tip™ has not failed once. http://www.escapetip.com/ (click on the videos on the main page.) This straightforward idea conforms to a wisdom hard gained over the years that if you want something done right, do it yourself. Statistics prove beyond all doubt that this is especially applicable in vehicle immersion accidents. How many people truly want to put their faith 100% into an automatic system to save their lives without at least a solid back up that allows them to get themselves out if “all else fails”. Most drivers trust their steel belted radial tires but still keep a spare “just in case”. At a hotel, I always take an elevator when I want to get up to my room and down to the lobby and yet I really appreciate the fact that the stairs are there “just in case”. Airborne soldiers can go their whole jump career deploying only the main parachute but, they all wear the reserve “just in case” Who can deny that the KISS theory or Keep It Simple Stupid is based on years and years of trial and error? I think that the Escape Tip™ is a simple, effective, and inexpensive proposition for a problem that has proven a persistent killer for more than half a century. I think that pushing the envelope of auto safety is a good idea and yet a little voice in the back of my head tells me that at the same time it would be prudent to provide an “all else fails” backup “just in case”.