Escape Tip

Escape Tip is an inherently obvious automotive safety idea. The purpose of the Escape Tip is to provide all occupants of a vehicle the means to break a side window glass if needed. This technique is suggested by every credible safety expert in the field when asked how to escape a sinking vehicle. The Escape Tip is a slight modification to the standard automotive seatbelt latchplate. If made available in all new cars, death by vehicle immersion and entrapment will be significantly reduced.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Decade of 3000 Preventable Drownings

Below is an extremely informative position paper on vehicle immersion drowning prevention that started out as an exceedingly contentious exchange and ended up with a Canadian safety instructor, and much more evident in the sum of our dealings, a magnanimous gentleman, teaching me about graciousness and honor.  Much of the letter below is me angrily picking apart an opinion that Mr. Comeau had already written and submitted to us. I went in with both barrels and responded to this particular offering with heated rancor.  He had no chance to respond within the confines of the subject matter displayed below. 

Mr. Comeau as a response to this letter informed me that he had been moved by my arguments and persuaded as to the efficacy of the methods prescribed herein. He did so in a way that left me humbled and immensely impressed. Upon receiving his response I was in awe of his honor and integrity. I leave below the meat of the conversation untouched and unedited although it represents extremely boorish behavior on my part. In the end, the object here is saving lives. In that vertical, David Comeau has a resume that finds him firmly at the pinnacle of all rescue professionals and instructors world-wide. I think I’m right in assuming that a man of his character will look past my posting the struggle detailed below and realize what can be gained if we succeed.

The commentary that started this exchange and the noble gesture that ended it are not included here. My focus is to concentrate on the issue of vehicle immersion drowning death and the best way to prevent it from happening in the future. I hope that David understands the reason for me bringing this conversation to light. Accepts again my apology for my behavior in my response below and recognizes my admiration for his role in bringing closure to this part of our dialogue through his summation. Since this exchange, Mr. Comeau has continued to assist us in the cause of mitigating the danger of vehicle immersion entrapment.

NOTE: remember, this is picked up in the middle of a heated two way exchange on vehicle immersion drowning...


David Comeau a top instructor with Survival Systems in white and highlighted from here on.

First, you're right, there is a lot of information on that posting, it's an information / discussion piece, not a training piece. My hope was that people would read real information from a subject matter expert and think about what they might do if they ended up entering the water in a vehicle. It was my intent to give people information in the hope that maybe if they thought about what they might do in this situation, it would come in handy for a surface evacuation. To expect anyone to escape from a sinking car based on an internet posting would be a little unrealistic.

Lonny MacDougall Egression technologies in highlight from here on...

My thought here is that he wants to distinguish that his opinion is more valid because he is a "subject matter expert". He may be an expert when it comes to ditching aircraft but his message is old and out of touch when it comes to civilian passenger vehicle immersion drowning. Throughout this offering, Comeau demonstrates his desire to project what sociologists refer to as reference authority using his years in the field, customer base and the idea that his approach is standardized and universally accepted.

Since he hasn't seen nearly the information on this issue as I have, he has no way of knowing the effects that his brand of information has had on the civilian populace when it comes to getting out of a sinking vehicle. If he was more in tune, he'd realize that the ENTIRE purpose of the piece in the Indiana video was to portray exactly what was shown. The Indiana team demonstrated the speed at which an optimum escape methodology could be, and more importantly SHOULD be conducted.

After viewing just that video the question comes to my mind what type of expert would suggest that any occupants stay with the car, remain belted, and wait for the car to fill with water while it continues to move away from the safety of dry land. Most aircraft go into the water fast; most cars that accidentally end up in the water are travelling much slower. In an aircraft, the disparate locations of weight loads across numerous types of aircraft make the initial moments in the water more unpredictable. Aircraft are more likely to tip, roll, or invert during or soon after the accident than cars. Most cars have very similar shapes, designs and water floating characteristics. Escaping an aircraft as soon after the accident as possible apparently yields no tangible rewards according to this expert. I have no reason not to believe him. Escaping a sinking vehicle as soon as possible has many. These include being closer to the shore, spending less time in the water, having more usable time should anything go awry, and most importantly, significantly reducing the chance of dying.


When we train people in HUET (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training) we take a morning to discuss hazards (injury, underwater disorientation), equipment (window & door exit mechanisms, seatbelts, etc) and finally procedures (preparing to ditch / crash, surface evacuation and underwater escape) and then a whole afternoon to train in a pool with a simulator. Each trainee goes through at least one surface evacuation and between 4 and 10 underwater escape exercises, some straight in and some inverted (the simulator rolls 180°) all of which involve the trainee strapped in to a seat with a seatbelt and a window / exit close by. Under the supervision of an in water instructor (who is also in the egress simulator), the trainee demonstrates without assistance that they can do the necessary steps in the correct order and egress through the exits. If the training involves use of a compressed air breathing apparatus (due to cold shock or limited exits for multi crew missions) then another day of training is added. The essence of the escape protocol for helicopters is just as applicable for road vehicles. There is no significant difference between a four door sedan and an S-76 helicopter, other then location of the engine / "C of G" and the window jettison mechanisms. That escape protocol for surface egress is BRACE FOR IMPACT-(AFTER IMPACT)-OPEN WINDOW-ESTABLISH HAND HOLD / REFERENCE-RELEASE SEAT BELT(inner hand)-EGRESS HEAD FIRST. For underwater escape, it's BRACE FOR IMPACT-WAIT FOR INTERIOR TO FLOOD OR OPEN WINDOW TO INITIATE FLOOD-ESTABLISH HAND HOLD-RELEASE SEATBELT-EGRESS HEAD FIRST. Once your car is sinking or underwater, you won't be able to egress until the water has flooded the interior of the vehicle. It is a world wide standard that is used all over the world, including your own Gulf of Mexico. I know that because Survival Systems trained pretty much 80% of the operators down there.

Nothing says I'm smarter than you better than an exceptional resume. But let's get this straight. The exceptional resume above is for HUET. I do not pretend to know about HUET. Other than the need to escape and get air, I would not consider the training and demonstrations that these people do, and passenger vehicle immersions similar enough to risk people's lives on their irresponsible position. The procedures for escape from a sinking passenger car should be simple and intuitive for a host of reasons not the least of which is the fact that based on Comeau's own synopsis of his training schedule, people will require one to two days in a pool with simulators, multiple attempts to master dual self rescue procedures with over a half a dozen steps each.

Even the least qualified individual reading this, should question the idea that there are no significant differences between a helicopter submersion and the sinking of a Chevy Impala as this man contends. The platforms are completely different. Just the engine location, the altered "C of G" and the window operation as well as location are enough to see that there are major differences. The sinking dynamics between an aircraft and a civilian passenger car are completely different. Throughout this man's letter, he criticizes attempts made by cops and firefighters to reproduce submersion accidents as contrived. Still, one has to note that the bastion of the Survival Systems doctrine is information gathered using a simulator.

Cops, firefighters, and even the Myth Busters at least used real cars! The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter has little in common with the average 4 door sedan; of this I can assure you. The Survival Systems trainer that I saw on television is actually a stripped-out mock-up at any rate. The first major difference that comes to mind is water flow. I'm guessing by looking at their S-76 trainer that it has an interior space of approximately 1600 cubic feet. The space is cavernous compared to a passenger car. The time and water volume necessary to fill this motor-home sized vehicle is a consideration that survival systems does not address when speaking about passenger vehicles. Passenger vehicles are constructed with a design emphasis that is completely different from aircraft. This design greatly affects the way a passenger car reacts as it enters the water. It affects how people are affected by any water as it enters the vehicle.

Passenger vehicles have an interior space filled with contoured seats and benches, transmission humps, steering wheels and headrests, Each of these obstacles acts to buffer the flow of water. Each of these obstacles acts to give occupants contact, stability, grab and push points to maintain stability inside the vehicle and then facilitate a speedy egress. The interior of the survival systems trainer looks spartan, like a giant, old AMC Pacer. A huge difference is that the S-76 cabin is about eight times the size of an old pacer, or the vast majority of passenger cars on the road for that matter. The width of the passenger compartment in an average sedan is about half that of the helicopter trainer. Few passenger vehicles carry 14 occupants and their luggage in the main cabin. These variables are very important in a passenger vehicle immersion situation.

Finally, take note that the training above requires one to two days of in depth comprehensive instruction. It requires multiple supervised hands-on attempts by the participants. How will this ever transfer to the 61 year old grandmother in Tucson that only needed to answer 18 out of 25 questions correctly and be able to parallel park. By the way, I can give you an example of dozens of proverbial "little old ladies" caught in flash floods, lakes, and retention basins that did survive because they were able to get out of the sinking vehicle quickly and because once out, the survival instinct is strong.  Conversely, my files are full of the tragic stories of people that have died with no other identifiable injury than drowning. They were found trapped in a vehicle with the doors and windows still intact. I also have quite a few 911 recordings from people lamenting their inability to get out, panicked by the prospect of their pending death or angry about their inability to do anything about it. You might find this interesting. The only stories that I know of where a corpse was pulled from a vehicle with an open door or open window noted involved the deceased still being seatbelted in.


One of the challenges in discussing underwater escape from vehicles is that there aren't many training programs (with the exception of the military…who came to us for guidance) on escaping cars & trucks. Especially in places like Indianna. If you had come on TV with your escape clip in Louisiana, you'd have had an avalanche of responses, since many offshore workers have undergone HUET training. What generally happens is someone from somewhere official like a police agency or fire/rescue has to come up with something, so they put some people on it, usually police / rescue divers, which results in mostly good information (I have no problem with open the windows and get out quick...excellent advice) but some categorically bad advice, like not including brace position or advising people to open your seatbelt first. The fact is that training to escape from aircraft cockpits & cabins on or under water, whether as a crew member or passenger, has been around for decades. Companies that fly their workers or military aircrew over water are compelled to first analyse the risk (we fly over water..what happens if we have to land or ditch down there) then mitigate that risk with equipment (like AC floats & PFD's) and training. The same applies to employees in passenger/road vehicles that come into close proximity with water or where there is an identifiable hazard (the vehicle could enter the water with people inside). Once that hazard has been identified, the employer is obligated to either remove the risk (no more driving/ working close to water) or mitigate the effects (equipment & training) The reason car escape underwater isn't taught all over the place is because the risk isn't considered great, however that is changing. Because the training curriculum is already well established and proven for HUET, the same principals of egress are just as applicable (and indeed are being taught by reputable & accredited training agencies) for vehicle escape.

Once again, because it bears repeating, HUET does not equal passenger car egress. I'd also like to note that while I do not oppose the idea that people using your brace methodology in a submersion accident will lessen the likelihood of a flailing injury, 10,000 vehicle a year go into the water. 300 occupants die. The vast, vast, vast majority are pulled from vehicles that have closed doors and raised windows. The vast, vast, vast majority of everyone else lives. If flailing injuries are occurring, people are not discussing them, not being treated for them, and they are not impeding their survivability .

On a tangent, One might ask, where did the idea of staying with a passenger vehicle until the "pressure equalizes" come from? Based on real world results as well as Dr. Giesbrecht's study, it is the single most dangerous plan to survive a civilian vehicle immersion accident being touted today. As far as I can tell, once the cabin is completely full of water, it results in a better than 99% fatality ratio. I'd call it 100% but I leave open the idea that some people survived this type of accident, went down with the car, waited until the vehicle was full of water and only then tried to see if they were able to open a door or window and told no one.

In all my research, reviewing all the studies put out by all the agencies in all the countries that have done so, I have yet to find a single incidence of any of these reports featuring an individual proclaiming that they waited in the car until it was completely full and when the "pressure equalizes" they proceeded to exit. What I do have interestingly enough is the CBS morning show video featuring Susan Koeppen and a METS trainer (helicopter mockup) She fails in her first attempt. So do plenty of other reporters across the country that try the "wait until the vehicle is full" technique. (I have the videos).

In the real world, there are no do-overs with a submersion accident. It is a true pass/fail, life and death test. An interesting tidbit is that in nearly every test conducted with reporters, the reporter fails at least once. No reporter has ever failed to shatter vehicle glass using a quality glass break/center punch device that I'm aware of. No one has ever failed using the seatbelt mounted Escape Tip. So, back to my question, where did this deadly idea come from?

My supposition is from ex-military guys that entered law enforcement, off shore oil workers that continued to relate their training to others as these accidents happened around their sphere of influence, Hollywood and the news media depicting success stories visually, and safety trainers that have been trained by other safety trainers continuing with the curriculum. With the absence of another idea, this information became doctrine. Everyone just ignored all the data and evidence that kept coming in. People ignored that victims kept dying at the same rate every year. People ignored that no one EVER survived using the complete technique. As stories started to emerge, experts dismissed them as anecdotal.

The Hollywood reference reminds me of an interesting tidbit of information. During the filming of a Sharon Stone film a few years ago, they could not get the car to sink fast enough so they cut huge holes in the floor of the car and installed grates. Ms Stone got stuck during one of the takes and after her rescue vowed to carry a glass break device from now on. Could not get the car to sink FAST ENOUGH??? …Hmmm…


First off, the brace position. The reason at least attempting to brace yourself with your arms crossed, is to avoid injury, especially flailing injuries, which make subsequent survival actions like opening windows & seatbelts much more difficult. Yes I would agree that not all water entries are high speed, but some are...sometimes a car hydroplanes, hits the water hard and ends up on it's roof or goes in fast & hard. Wouldn't it be better to be braced and experience a soft entry as opposed to not braced and injured. The brace position is taught in underwater egress training because we train for the worst case scenario. In the first link it mentions a 60 year old man whose car went in the water and he didn't survive. Did he die from water impact trauma / drowning or was a medical condition the reason he entered the water? Was he wearing a seatbelt? Did the airbags (if deployed) effect his escape? Was he recovered inside or out of the vehicle? What was the (estimated) speed at impact? If a post mortem was performed, it would be interesting to know if he drowned secondary to being injured (knocked out) or because he tried but failed to escape from the vehicle (evidence of injuries from attempted egress). Unfortunately, those kinds of data are rarely collected and if so, in non-scientific or anecdotal ways, so research papers supporting the efficacy of things like the value of a brace position in a motor vehicle water entry are never published, unless there is a public outcry or you have a research budget. Our aviation & vehicle research, gathered over 20 years from Canadian, European and US military sources as well as petroleum industry funded studies, indicate that injury is a serious impediment to survival in aircraft & vehicle water immersions.

First, effective safety standards should be designed to affect the maximum amount of protection over the broadest cross section of the population. Concentrating on any one victim needs to remain secondary to finding the mean and working from there. In civilian auto immersion accidents, secondary injuries are not even remotely a fatality factor in the majority of accidents. Numerous studies including the most recent by Canadian researcher Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht continue to affirm this.

I do not have a problem with the bracing concept I just remind everyone that this is not an AVIATION ACCIDENT! The website explains that the occupants of an aviation accident might have as little as 15 seconds to prepare for impact. In the vast majority of passenger vehicle accidents, 15 seconds notice before impact or water entry is an eternity! More than likely, on average, average people, will just plant their feet into the double imaginary breaks on the floorboard. They will press their body as far into the contoured cushion of their seat as they can. They will grab something near them with each hand.

If it is a water accident, in a flash, most people will experience a massive deceleration at worst and then the sensation of buoyancy and stabilization with the nose of the car starting to descend a little faster than the rear. How do we know? Because more than 10,000 vehicles go into the water every year. Most of these accidents occur in water too shallow to pose a fatal threat. In all cases, over 97% of the people make it out of a submerging vehicle survive. Why this fact is lost on many is lost on me. More than 97% of people that enter the water in a vehicle survive! Complete vehicle submersion is the first delineator that dramatically affects the death toll. If any part of a vehicle’s passenger cabin remains above the water line in a way that allows a person to breath, they almost always survive. In a fully submerged vehicle, the single most important factor, the one main difference between those that make it and those that don't, is the presence of a sealed, closed, intact passenger compartment. If occupants can find a way out, they take it. If they can't, they die.


Your information on opening windows is about the same as what I learned from talking to auto engineers, the electrics should work for a little while so get them windows open quick. Most peace officers have stories of arriving to an MVA with a car in the water, lights blinking, wipers going, etc. However while I'll admit there is little factual information or concrete studies on how well or long electronic windows & door locks work underwater, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that while they may go down while immersed, they may also go up, as the engineers say, without inputs (in other words on their own) They may go down and up several times, we just don't know. One account I read on the internet described the passenger opening his window, getting out, and while watching his slowly sinking car, thought he would re-enter for some valuables. Once inside, to his shock, the windows began to close and the controls weren't responding. While manual windows are a little more reliable, most of the experts I contacted said that underwater, the window won't be able to roll down (whether electronically or manually) because of the water pressure against the pane, it's just too much for the lowering mechanism to over come. The only sure ways to open a window underwater is to break it with a specialized tool. There are tools (RES-Q) specifically to punch open windows for exactly this situation. They have been as common as jumper cables in places like the Netherlands for years since due to the abundance of canals. Dutch drivers know that if they do end up in the drink, the window is going to be opened fast & effectively. If you feel there's a risk of water entry why not get the right tool for the job. As you mention, keep it someplace close & secure so you can access it quick in an emergency.

The single most important thing you said in this entire piece is; "The only sure ways to open a window underwater is to break it with a specialized tool".

In that one statement you succinctly wrap up what could be the greatest life saving advance in the vehicle immersion argument. Other than that, the whole electric window argument reminds me a lot of the scene from the movie "My cousin Vinny" where Marisa Tomei's character asks Joe Pesci's character if a deer about to get shot cares what kind of pant's the hunter is wearing?

The windows will, won't, may, sometimes, always, under certain conditions, might, should, probably, could, work, What??? Are you serious??? FOCUS PEOPLE!!! "The only sure ways to open a window underwater is to break it with a specialized tool". Over 20,000 people have died since 1960!!! Let's just give them a little something to break the glass! Fleas arguing over a dog is another analogy I like here. You mention the Dutch as being able to open the window fast because of the abundance glass break tools among the population. Should we learn something here? We should. We should improve on their success. I have an idea. Let's design a small, cost negligible, hardened metal glass break device into a seatbelt. It will be installed in all passenger cars. In that way we'll use the best survival techniques utilized by a people that are recognized for their expertise. We'll convince people that the best chance for living through a vehicle immersion accident is to pop the belt, pop the window, pop yourself out of the car.


I think the second area we seem to disagree is the issue of seatbelts. I note that you advise people to take it off immediately. This is the main mistake most people make (get that thing off, it'll drown me) Survival Systems Training, (whose underwater vehicle simulators [Hummers & APC's] and techniques are used to train the US army in vehicular underwater escape) and every other major training institution in the world that trains offshore workers on aircraft underwater escape, teach this: brace for impact-open your exit-establish your handhold reference-allow cabin to flood-RELEASE YOUR SEATBELT WITH INSIDE HAND-and escape.

I KNOW the main thing that we disagree on is seatbelts. You happen to be wrong about seatbelts being the main mistake in civilian vehicle immersion drowning. As well as wrong on when a civilian in a passenger car should get their belt off. The number one fatality factor in these types of deaths is entrapment in the vehicle. PLAIN AND SIMPLE. People are found drowned in their cars still strapped in their seatbelts as well. I don't know where you researched your contention, but I'd check your facts. Second place, as a contributor as a fatality, is so far away that it hardly registers.

You grade everything in your argument on what I'll call the aircraft standard. Your blind reverence to this standard reminds me of the religious nuts that refused to admit that the world was round. They went so far as to kill those that differed with their opinion. Aircraft enter the water differently. The speed, the angle, and the location relative to shore are all different. Aircraft are designed differently. The level of training that a pilot goes through is different. Weight and its distribution is a primary factor. Fuel quantity, cabin dimensions and proximity to engines and moving parts all are different. Center of gravity and likelihood of immediate frontal or lateral inversion is different.

The MAJORITY of all civilian passenger vehicle immersion accidents

* will enter the water at 30 miles an hour or less

* will enter the water right side up, wheels down

* will enter water where witnesses/Good Samaritans are more like to congregate

* will effectively and quickly stabilize while still buoyant - The empty cabin and trunk sit relatively high and the heavy engine, transmission and axles sit low. Water slowly enters the cabin in a predictable fashion and begins to accumulate near the front occupant's feet. As the engine and the weight of the water begin to drag the nose of the vehicle down, the air pocket makes its way toward the rear of the vehicle. It passes through the rear seat, through the trunk hatch seals until every last bit of it is gone. The car slips under water. Unfortunately, most of the breathable air is either gone or located in an area of the vehicle that is distant from the doors. This is the reason people are often found in relatively odd locations of a vehicle. Their primitive instincts have them following the last of the air until it is all over.  Even though most of the air is gone, it won't be easy to open a door or window for a little while longer. My guess is that many people panic here, use up the rest of their energy as well as any remaining air in their lungs trying to get out until forced to breathe, they aspirate water. The Myth Buster guy demonstrated this well. Here is an interesting note: Nearly every submerged vehicle found on its top has one thing in common—it is found in more than 15 feet of water allowing the buoyancy of the tires to be the most compelling force countering the forces of gravity and momentum that are dragging the engine down and affecting the rest of the vehicle. (Visualize this phenomenon and let me know if you don't get it) My point here is that the inversion took place long after the breathable air had already exited the trunk and slipped to the surface. (You may not have known this, but Master Diver Bob May does. I know because he explained it to me).

* will float for a minimum of 30 seconds

* will enter water that is less than 15 feet deep at the point where the car is found

* will be driven by and occupied by untrained CIVILLIANS!!! Bob May knows why this is important. The average civilian that Bob May swims out to help has one thing on his mind. Survival. He'll pull Bob's hair, climb on top of him, drown him in order to survive!

Bob and people like him just didn't wake up one day and decide to declare that people in these types of accident should take of their belts in order to be contrary and get attention. Being on the front lines, training together, assessing their successes and failures led to some undeniable truths in their attempts to save people from immersion drowning incidents. They include a harsh reality all rescuers have to face. You can't save everyone. Once that was established, professionals like Detective May started to look for ways to save the most people by taking into account the most common conditions likely to be faced by people they are charged to protect. Two concepts that are sure to save lives are the fact That May and his contemporaries decided early to keep it simple and to keep it consistent.


Now lets look at this for a second, why the seatbelt off last...does it make any big difference. For most people it's very counter-intuitive.

You said it Counter-intuitive, want average people to survive? Play to their intuition instead of against it. In the real world, Cops deal with average people. Trying to help them survive the most common type of vehicle immersion accident faced by the driving public today they would want to:

* Reduce the number of steps in the process to a minimum

* Remove as many variables as possible

* streamline processes combining those you can and eliminating those that do not provide tremendous advantage

Think "IN CASE OF FIRE BREAK GLASS" and the classic "PULL" as examples of the correct way to work with the common person regarding safety instructions. Ask yourself why the instructions do not read "Remember to wear a glove to protect your hand from possible injury from falling glass shards, Find adequate eye protection to lessen the possibility of blindness due to flying glass shards etc. etc.” There is a reason. We just need for you to embrace it.


While I appreciate your efforts to make a helpful safety film, you can't base any escape protocol on 3 rescue divers in dry suits, escaping a vehicle that just got rolled into a pond. What you guys did in that video is called a surface evacuation and in the aviation world the only difference is you get into a life raft. Yes in that situation, it probably doesn't matter whether I open the seat belt then roll down the window and get worked, everybody's out in 20 seconds. On one of your links (How to survive your worst nightmare) it also tells folks to get the belt off, then describes the force of the water entering a flooding car. What it doesn't describe is people getting water up thier nose, being moved around by the tons of water entering the car, gravity being replaced by flotation and vision being lost as they enter the water. This all combines to produce underwater disorientation, the primary reason people drown in survivable water entries. This response in cold water is especially deadly as the victim has a markedly reduced ability to hold thier breath, which creates the two main factors in panic behaviour, confined space & time limit. The person bolts away from the open window, becomes disoriented and ends up moving to some little corner of the vehicle where they drown. If you don't think a person can get disorientated and end up turned around and lost in a small car cockpit...well book your self a ticket to Halifax and I'll show you. Again, what I'm trying to explain here is these egress protocols and established standard operating procedures have to work in every potentially survivable situation. That is why we brace for impact, we get the window open as soon as possible while belted in our seats. If the car is flooding slowly we get out fast and get on the roof. Your stuff post egress is fine, but since you shot it in winter you might want to mention cold shock and swimming failure, the two primary causes of death in cold water, not hypothermia, which takes considerably longer to kill people. This might effect your decision to swim to shore unless it's very close.

Are you out of your mind? I ask you because three grown men just demonstrated for all to see the absolute wisdom and undeniable logic of popping the seatbelts, insuring that everyone in the vehicle is ready to get out, clearing the windows (one rolled down and the other broken) and getting out. They re-enacted the majority of all water immersion accidents that take lives in this country. Do you not know that the VAST MAJORITY of all cars that go into the water start out on the surface for 30 seconds to two minutes? Bob May's goal is to make every evacuation a surface evacuation. If he does, civilian survivability of vehicle immersion accidents goes through the roof.

Consider this: most cars enter the water in a relatively slow, wheels down configuration. The demonstrators in the video you witnessed executed perfectly the escape procedure best suited to allow for the maximum survivability of the most victims! At this point I'd really like to see a list of people who have publically declared to you that they were so happy they stayed with the vehicle until it filled with water, they enjoyed holding their breath until the door would finally open and then they were able to escape from their cars just like they thought they would and they lived happily ever after.

I can deliver to you lists of people found dead in their back seats necks extended into the crease under the rear window. Why, you ask? That was the location where they took their last breath. I can also share recordings of emergency dispatchers imploring frenzied callers to do anything they can to break a window and get out right up until the connection goes dead. What would a seatbelt glass break device mean in these situations. Even as I write this, these scenarios continue to play themselves out hundreds of times a year? As to other links that you've perused, please realize that they, like most, have some good and some bad info. Realize that the confusion that this causes (just like the confusion you are causing) is one of the primary dangers to vehicle immersion drowning victims.

You should know that current research suggests that confusion about how to escape is a greater danger than removing your seatbelt. As far as the dangers of removing your seatbelt immediately following the vehicle entering the water are concerned, the number of people positively affected will be greater by far than the number that will be incapacitated by vehicle movement or a torrent of water. Keep in mind, that more people by far are found dead strapped into their seatbelts in a submerged vehicle than are found with massive head injuries or broken arms and legs as the result of "being moved around by the tons of water entering the car" in fact this just doesn't happen in the real world. Why you ask?

Bob May could explain it better, but here goes. It is a matter of mass and displacement. An average vehicle might weigh a little less than two tons, so logic (and physics) dictate that it will displace two tons of water. For the average car that has 18 foot sides and is about 7 feet wide, that means a water level less than two and a half feet up the vehicle's sides even if all four tires are flat. At the same time, the volume of the cab and trunk is more than 350 cubic feet which could accommodate approximately 10 cubic meters of water or 10 tons of water.

While that space is empty, the vehicle is very buoyant. Much like a boat, the vehicle displaces its weight but a good portion of its overall volume remains above water. If a car was completely water tight, it would float all day with the waterline well below the window line. Since a vehicle is not water tight, water seeps in and begins to fill the lowest points in the car. The car begins to sink but only as it continues to fill. The water level inside the car rises as the car sinks and more water is flowing in because more entry points are exposed to the outside water. Water is constantly working to find level. The water level inside and outside the car are such that if the window is displaced (broken or rolled down) the amount of water entering the car is much less torrential than you describe, and it's power is quickly dissipated and diluted by the water already in the vehicle as well as the shape, size, and configuration of the cabin of the car. Put very simply, an average car can't sink far enough to allow water to come pouring in until so much water has already seeped into the cabin providing the weight necessary to sink it in the first place that it effectively mitigates the power of the flow.

Some of your other concerns should not be primary when dealing with issues of life and death. As an example, if I'm ever choking to death and a surgeon refuses to cut me because the procedure calls for a number two scalpel and all he has is a number one and a number three, I'd say he needs more focus on the primary issue. Worrying about water up the nose against over three hundred deaths a year is a position that lacks focus. Your next arguments all side with the Bob May approach. Since gravity is never replaced on this planet, I'll assume you were taking creative literary license with the displacement ideas just covered. Displacement in a vehicle is ever changing as the vehicle fills with water. Knowing this, what do you think is the best time to get out? Vision is better at the surface of the water which is another reason to get out quickly. Underwater disorientation is not a factor if the victims never go underwater. My vote is to get out before it becomes an issue.

The water is not as cold if you are on top of your car and, as a bonus you do not have to hold your breath up there. I do not see how discussing cold shock is going to make one bit of difference. If your physiology is in a condition that immersion is going to kill you, there is nothing else that needs to be said. Inside or outside of the car you are dead. The swimming failure argument is mitigated by less time in the water and a shorter distance required to reach safety. These two factors are achieved when you exit the vehicle on the surface and as soon as possible and head directly to shore. Hypothermia may not kill immediately, but Bob May knows that its effects will render you fairly useless after eight to ten minutes. If you spend this time waiting for your car to fill as it continues to move further and further away from the safety of the shoreline you are increasing the likelihood of hypothermia. If you fail to function effectively enough to enact your own rescue, you'll most likely die. Let's keep hypothermia on the list just so people might consider getting out of the car and the water as soon as possible.

As for the two main factors in panic behavior being confined space and time, I'll take your word for it if you'll take my word that confined space and time as factors are greatly mitigated if you get out of the car right away. I can't speak to a reason that a person would bolt away from an open window of a sinking car unless they were deranged or suicidal. I've never encountered such a tale in all my research.

Why is it your contention that an escape standard or protocol has to work in all situations. Does a seatbelt, airbag, or crush zone work every time? You will find this hard to believe, but your method is actually costing lives. I'll explain at the end of my entry. First an analogy; NBA basketball great LeBron James has yet to miss an uncontested two handed dunk in an NBA game. Most other NBA dunkers have similar percentages. In essence, this is the perfect protocol for scoring in the NBA. By your logic, this should be the only shot taken by basketball players from here on out. Forget the fact that my daughter has a fine little jump shot and if I help my nephew he can score as well. If you cannot dunk, you fail. Your internationally renowned school of dunking has taught 80% of the dunkers in the world. All military teams use your time tested procedure. Along comes somebody who suggests lowering the hoop height so that everyone at least has a chance and you point out that with a lower hoop, some people might trip over it. In your vast experience, people have been known to trip over low objects. Besides, you've been training six and seven foot physical specimens for years using the best procedure possible so this crazy "lowering the basket idea" for the common man is a no go. We wouldn't want a few people to trip just because everyone might start taking advantage of the new more widely makeable shot process.

You describe a standard procedure that is supposed to work in all situations. My question is at what cost? Worse, is the fact that with three hundred deaths a year, it's not working. Your answer will no doubt refer to the fact that the people dying simply didn't use your procedure and to that I'd say…No kidding? BTW, it should be noted that if Escape Tips were installed in all cars, every one of your students could continue to use your techniques. Escape Tips are 100% user activated. Suicides would not be affected although if a person changes their mind, we'll be there for them. People waiting for the water to fill the cab will not be affected either but, if the door or window won't cooperate once they've decided it's safe to leave, we'll be there for them as well.


If the car is flooding rapidly (this can occur when the windows are open or the windshield is blown in, among other things), we wait until the in rush of water subsides, get the window or door open, maintain a reference on the window/door frame, release the belt and egress head first, using your arms to pull yourself out and not kicking. I would absolutely agree with getting kids & infants out on the surface asap. Egressing children and the unconscious from a car underwater would obviously require you to release your belt and reach to the back, maintaining some sort of physical reference. That's a personal decision and what we like to call extenuating circumstances. The bit about swimming around breathing out of air pockets, well it sounds good and it happens in movies, but here's a little reality therapy, you lose 65% of your visual acuity in water...pool water, so it's even worse in turbulent pond or river water, low light conditions, bubbles, all that stuff is the reason that when taking training in underwater escape, you are specifically instructed to trust your physical reference only. What you can feel and hold on to, and the only way you can do that is to be belted into the seat...then everything is still right beside you, whether the car has flipped upside down or is sinking engine first. To release your seatbelt without having an open exit or somewhere you can feel your way to and escape goes against every established & proven principle of underwater egress training. Most people and "internet experts" think they can do this not because they've experienced it but because they've seen it on TV.

IF! It is a word you use a lot. "If the car is flooding rapidly (this can occur when the windows are open or the windshield is blown in, among other things), we wait until the in-rush of water subsides, get the window or door open." Keep in mind that if a window is down or missing, one of two things are going to happen. If the entry into the water is slow and the vehicle is upright, the vehicle will float on the surface while slowly taking on water. When the water reaches the missing window, it will fill and sink. In this scenario, neither the Escape Tip nor the seatbelt will be of much use from this point on.

In the other scenario, the vehicle hurtles into the water and quickly floods through the open window. The weight sinks the vehicle immediately and again neither the Escape Tip nor the seatbelt will be of much use from this point on. In the majority of all vehicle immersion accidents, the vehicle enters the water wheels down, floats away from the entry point and slowly sinks. If at this point, people were trained to get out of their seatbelts turn the seatbelt in their hand and use it to break a window and exit immediately, the death toll would plummet. In vehicle immersion accidents where a window is open or a windshield is blown out, this often turns out to be a good thing for the occupants. Only very, very rarely does this lead to death except under two conditions. One is that the trauma that affected the vehicle and blew out windows, happened prior to it entering the water and was a condition of the occupants injury (extremely rare) and two, the victim failed to remove the seatbelt. The open window loaded the car with water and sunk it before the victim removed the belt.

Disturbing here is that some victims have been found with their fingernails bent back from the effort exerted by trying to claw their way out apparently unaware that they were still belted in. The Susan Koeppen video I mentioned earlier shows what I refer to as "belt function failure.” "Belt function failure" in my mind is when a person simply can't understand the mechanical workings of the seatbelt. It is a condition that is greatly exasperated by panic. Using your time and confined space explanation, the confined space of being immobilized by the belt and the time limit now imposed by holding one's breath under water and a need for air, I imagine the sense of panic is huge. I can give you lists of reporters here that can verify that their panic prevented them from being able to operate their belt and they had to be rescued by safety divers monitoring the exercise. Want to know something INCREDIBLE? Each reporter reported the "stay belted" message as part of their story anyway!!!

Other issues with "belt function failure" include feeling trapped and frightened by the force of the water entering a flooding car. Feeling trapped and frightened while water goes up the nose. Loss of vision as the car sinks and you are trapped under the water. Underwater disorientation experienced while trapped by the belt under water. Experiencing the onset of hypothermia as you remain trapped by the seatbelt. Good news though! You won't end up in some little corner of the vehicle. When the car is recovered, you'll be found strapped in, another shining example of the deranged idea that what works for an aircraft coming in at incredible speed should be the de-facto standard for automobiles that mostly roll into the water fairly uneventfully and mostly stabilize and FLOAT for 30 seconds to two minutes.

In order to prevent the POSSIBILITY of a few bumps and bruises, let the water in first and then and then and only then, go to work on the last restraint holding you in the car. "Soldiers, take your mark, FIRE, OK ready aim" Stupid huh? BTW; "belt function failure" is a prescription for certain death. It happens. We know it happens. We've witnessed quite a few reporters in so called "contrived" situations experience it including Susan Koeppen who was trained by Survival Systems USA and still failed on national TV. Great news though despite having to be rescued she still reported the methodology that would have killed her as the method to use to save you life. HUH? Surely you're joking...


I was a little taken aback by your assertion my information was wrong & outdated. Usually police agencies come to Survival Systems to ask our advice on how to do this. We train people all over the world and are considered by our clients to be the industry leader and a global authority on underwater escape.

Just because you got your feelings hurt doesn't mean you are not WRONG! It does mean however that over three hundred people a year will continue to die. Hello! Three grown men took 20 seconds to exit a car using a three step process!!! A University Study put dozens of real cars into the water and watched dozens of real people trying to get out. They studied thousands of accident reports. Their empirical research had no agenda going into the study other than to provide the best methodology to help the most people survive in the most common vehicle immersion situations. This may not be the best method for people that do an upside down "Dukes of Hazzard" car flip into raging river. But guess what the odds are that the average person will experience a "Hollywood" crash in their lifetime?


My suggestion to you all is do a little more research on what professional training institutions offer. We are charged by offshore industry & the military to carry out aviation & vehicle underwater egress training for thier personnel, so our training methods and content must be proven and backed up by research. The fact that this training began as fixed wing & helicopter ditching training was due to the fact that there were some major accidents where people died for no other reason then they got injured or disorientated and drowned because they couldn't locate an exit to escape from. It's very expensive to have a highly trained pilot or petroleum engineer die for lack of training. You may be surprised at how many training centers are doing HUET. This type of underwater escape training for oil workers who fly over water has been SOP for about 25 years, the military even longer. Our sister company that manufactures the "in water" simulators (Survival Systems Ltd & Survival Systems USA…google those) has recently begun making hummers & troop carriers for US army personnel. Visit our training company website at When we put information out on things like vehicle escape, that information is backed up by years of research (on file), and applied experience. When PADI come out with a diver advisory or procedure, they are operating from their established & recognized knowledge base of credibility. When public service agencies (like you all) tell people to slow down when roads are icy or have a plan in case you end up in the water, they are within their mandate of public safety. However when they turn to giving people instructions on how to handle specific emergencies, like how to escape a car underwater, you better be in compliance with generally accepted industry practices. I would urge caution on telling people how to escape cars underwater until you have made certain your information is accurate.

GET OVER YOURSELF! All the fancy trainers in the world won't make a car accident into a plane accident. All your smug mono-backslapping won't make your assertions dogmatic. It will just get people killed. In a car, the way out is usually right next to the person. He just has to get out of his belt and go out the window. The average person thrown into a life or death situation will function at a very low level the closer he gets to death.

The Bob May Indiana State Police Method, The Dade County Florida Method, and the University of Winnipeg method all agree: Get civilians out of the vehicle as quickly as possible and you will save more lives. You artificially and unnecessarily put people in harm's way with your insistence that yours is the only way for civilians to exit passenger vehicles that are submerging. Professionals that dedicate their lives to working with ordinary people know to keep it as simple as possible. What could be more simple than: get everyone free of their belts, clear the window, get out.

You should re-read your last paragraph as a lesson on how to be pompous and do the opposite until you become part of the solution and not part of the problem that continues to kill people. Bob May and people like him have a research motivation you could not possibly dream of. They unbelt the lifeless bodies of those who have drowned strapped into their cars and they interview people who tell amazing stories of survival, and they are smart enough to see a correlation.


If you Google underwater car escape you'll find a lot of stuff. Some from legitimate training centers with actual expertise in this admittedly narrow field, including my colleagues from Survival Systems USA (who manage the US military training) and lots from well meaning groups who try a couple of exercises (like you guys-dry suits in the car) and feel they have the whole thing figured out. Then there are the "ex guys", my favorite (Today on Oprah "How to Escape a Car Underwater" ex marine tells you how). You made the statement my information is old & outdated, but compared to what? Do you guys have any research? Publish any papers? Can you direct me to any legitimate training or standards organizations who are supporting your statements? Having some auto talk show hosts who agree with you or reading other stuff on the internet that support your info is not research or established fact. Try searching helicopter underwater escape and see what you find.

Searching helicopter underwater escape??? Are you serious? Should I research planting kidney beans if my kidneys hurt? A helicopter crash and a car crash are not the same. To answer your question, your information is old and outdated compared to the procedures released by the extensive Michigan/Indiana study called project STAR decades ago as well as the opinions released by the Dade County Fire and Rescue teams starting in the 80's, The head of R&D for the Firefighters Union in Phoenix, Arizona, released his opinion in 2002 and the University of Winnipeg released the most comprehensive study ever done on the issue of Civilian Vehicle Immersion Drowning in 2006. Master Diver Detective Bob May just wrote you to bring you up to speed. But the talk shows listen to guys with fancy trainers. They don't want to listen to egg heads and read detailed reports. As long as you are willing to strap them in and spin them around, they'll say whatever you tell them to. If you can get to sleep at night with this information, then there's nothing more for me to say.


The myth buster dudes, (I will admit) did some cool stuff on opening doors underwater, but I'll repeat this..filming yourself getting out of a car in a contrived situation in or on the water once or twice does not replace 20 plus years of applied research nor the experience of having trained over 20,000 offshore workers, pilots and air crew from Norway to Indonesia, on underwater escape. You don't stand up in front of a coroners inquest and say "I saw it on a car show…I saw it on the news". That's why I put my professional contact details on that wiki piece, so folks like you know where it's coming from. I don't write articles on police procedure, that's not my area of expertise, however I must say it's pretty ballsy to contact me and inform me I don't know what I'm talking about.

Ballsy?? In this case the information provided to you by May is true. May was doing you a favor so you don't spend another twenty years operating under the delusion that Helicopter crashes and cars crashes are the same.


I thought your stuff was, for the most part, pretty good (have a plan, get the windows open and get out quick) and I think your hearts are in the right place. With just a few corrections on the belt & brace positions, it would be fine. But again I would carefully consider what, as a law enforcement agency, you put out as emergency escape advice. Recently we've seen an increase in requests to appear as expert witnesses in court on issues of vehicle escape underwater, typically from people working in vehicles close to water like dock side snow clearing tractors with cabs and excavators working near ponds and rivers. One of the cases involved the validity of emergency equipment & training given to an operator if he went into the water.

No comments:

About Me

My photo
Vehicle submersion accidents kill people nearly every day. I'm on a quest to make automobiles just a little safer. For the last decade, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic safety Administration) has been keeping extensive records as to the causes and outcomes of traffic accidents on this nation's roads. In that time, an average of 300 people have drowned each year trapped in their vehicles underwater. My friends and I want to change that by giving people a fighting chance to survive. I hope that you'll read more here and at the website