I doubt seriously that many folks worry very much about what would happen if their car accidentally drove into a body of water or they tried to drive through a stream that was deeper than believed. But these events do happen and there is information that acknowledges the seriousness of the problem for occupants in a vehicle that is sinking in a body of water. The concept, known as “escapeworthiness,” should be known to the automobile industry. It raises the point that if an occupant of a vehicle that is submerged in a body of water is unhurt, that person should have a chance to escape from the vehicle before drowning.
Available data reveals that motor vehicle submersions account for about 7 to 11.6 percent of all accidental drowning deaths. Vehicle submersions caused by flooding account for more than 60 percent of flooding deaths in the United States. This sort of thing occurs when people attempt to drive across flooded roadways in their cars or trucks. Despite the high fatality rates, there has been too little attention paid to the concept of escapeworthiness.
On August 11, 2011, a mother and her two daughters drowned after being trapped in their minivan when a Pittsburgh thoroughfare built over a stream bed suddenly filled with 9 feet of water. The occupants were unable to open the power windows and the outside pressure made it impossible to open the doors. The family of the victims filed a lawsuit against Chrysler for failing to warn consumers about the hazards of vehicle submersion and for a failure to implement escape technology such as the following:
• a waterproof power window switch;
• a remote power source to provide power to the windows;
• a submersion sensor to reverse windows upon submersion;
• a manual window operation; or
• a device designed to break the glass in the event of a power window failure.
The best escape route when a vehicle is sinking is through the side windows, while the vehicle is still floating. The flotation of the vehicle lasts for about one minute, and many people waste the minute or so until the vehicle is submerged calling 911 or a loved one. Until “escapeworthiness” finally becomes standard in the automobile industry, there will continue to be safety issues. Experts at Safety Research make this point: “You have one minute. Don’t touch your cell phone. Seatbelts off. Window out.” This is very good advice.
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