Every year in Arizona there are monsoon storms and somebody inevitably get's killed in a car that is sinking in water.

It appears the primary issue is getting free from the vehicle. After that, there's an entire set of other issues. Aside from that, how can I free myself from a sinking vehicle?

Is there anything I can do that's pro-active in case it happens?

What are the problems that need to be solved quickly in order to be successful in extricating myself from a car that is stuck in water and rapidly sinking?

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    I don't think this question is on topic. It's not about repair or maintenance. There's a consensus that questions about safe driving habits are not on topic unless they relate to mechanical issues. Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 22:05
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    Mythbusters did two segments on pressure equalization. Adam "dies" in one of them.
    – isanae
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 22:12
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    Get one of those window-breaker hammers. Most have a sharpened blade on the other end designed specifically to cut through seat belts. Cut your belt, shatter the window, and get out!
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 16:37
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    Do NOT take the time to call 911. It's precious seconds that you have to work on an escape and helping your passengers. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 19:04
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    I'm just picturing somebody posting this question from their phone while in a sinking vehicle... Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 21:30

14 Answers 14


If you can open the door, do it

Then unbuckle, and bail out.

If your car has sunroof and it works, open it and exit from it

Your car electrics need to be functioning for this to work though. On some cars like VW's you can pop off an inner roof panel to reveal a hand crank to open the sunroof.

Detach the headrest, use it to shatter the window glass¹

If you can't roll down the windows

  • Take headrest off the back of the seat
  • Push one of the pegs from the headrest attachment in between the window and door card, just where the seal is.
  • Jam it down in there a few inches
  • Pull the headrest towards you to shatter the glass
  • Clear away shattered glass remnants and exit from window

Here is a video demonstrating how to shatter the glass.

This is one very good reason for manufacturers to keep car seat headrests detachable.

The key here is to wedge the peg into the gap between the door card and the window and use a lever action to shatter the glass. Hitting it isn't as reliable.

Hope this helps someone. Maybe even save a life.

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    ¹ - taken from this Lifehacker article
    – Zaid
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 22:39
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    Clear away shattered glass remnants, in case the water didn't do that for you? Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 22:48
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    You are missing the most important part: keep as calm as you can. Being calm will help you to understand your situation and re-orientate yourself. Then, you can proceed in any way you need. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 1:20
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    @IsmaelMiguel: Agreed. Keeping calm is important. That way, if your other attempts to exit the vehicle have proven unsuccessful, you have the mindset to take action and hopefully open the door once the pressure inside has equalized to the pressure outside (ie: the car has been filled with water).
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 19:21
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    @DigitalTrauma just another way of saying "door panel"
    – Zaid
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 22:44

Get an emergency escape tool

For being proactive, the best option is a emergency glass breaking device with a seatbelt cutter like this model:

(Click image to enlarge)

IMG: seatbelt cutter

The Mythbusters have done two episodes on escaping a vehicle in water, and in the second episode, one of the camera men had to have his belt cut off him because he became suck when the car flipped and was not able to release the belt.

The emergency hammer should be secured in a location that you can reach while the seatbelt is tight. Also note that the hammer can't be used on the windshield. Only the side windows and possibly the rear window will break. If your windows are tinted it might make getting through the broken window harder.

Don't Panic

You have time to think. The car will not sink immediately, but you do need to act quickly. Also as shown on Mythbusters, the car's electrical system will not immediately quit working. Try to roll down the windows and unlock the doors. That might just work. Get out of your seatbelt and be ready for the car to roll as it sinks. If you have time, try to control your breathing and take a deep breath before you get out or the remaining air leaks out.

Equalize pressure

It's been tested over and over - you can't open the doors until the car is filled with water and the pressure equalizes. If you can't break the window, stay calm and wait to open the door. Be prepared to try another door because the impact of the crash may have bent the body of the car making some doors impossible to open. Again, expect this and don't panic. Try the other doors.

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    For the two seconds it takes to try rolling down the window, you might as well try it, right?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 21:34
  • @corsiKa Good point. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 0:37
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    @corsiKa And those 2 seconds can be used to look around you, evaluate your situation and decide how to act. They even may be used to re-orientate yourself (to figure out if you are upside down or something). Stopping for a few seconds may really help a lot. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 15:25
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    To figure out your orientation, look at where the water is inside the cabin. If it's on the floor, you're still roof up.
    – cdunn
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 18:59
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    If you're in a river, it may also help to try to plan your quickest path to safety. Trees are very very good, because they usually hold up much better to flooding than man-made structures. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 23:55

Depends how proactive you want to be. A really sensible preparation is to have a window shattering tool in your glove box.

As soon as you have "finished" ending up in the water, get your seatbelt off and retrieve that tool, and pop your side window.

You really want to exit the vehicle before it takes on enough water to sink - and firstly get onto the roof, as you can use it as a platform to jump towards whatever land is nearest.

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    Nice add on with the 'roof jumping' Commented Apr 13, 2016 at 21:03
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    I'm not sure I agree with the roof tip. The roof will be slippery, and in the time it takes to get on top of it, you could have swam farther than you can jump. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:27
  • Carl - reasonable point. I guess it will come down to circumstances.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:35

Taking from @roryalsop's response.

Once free of the vehicle, especially in a flash flood, a flotation device can be a real life saver.

Many vehicles have rear seats that you can pull out very quickly that are made of styrofoam.

As well, a head rest could prove to be enough floatation to eas3 the burden of staying afloat or getting ashore for the physically challenged.

There are ultimately two issues here

  • getting free of the vehicle

  • getting to land

Both goals should be thought of in advance to ensure a positive outcome.


I remember seeing a TV show in which two people in full scuba gear were placed in a car which was then pushed into a lake, and tried different ways of escaping. The experiment was repeated multiple times.

Takeaways were:

  • Once a door is partially below the water line, the pressure difference makes it impossible for a human to open until the interior has filled with water to the same level.
  • It takes some time for the interior to fill with water, hence you'd have to hold your breath for very long if you wanted to wait for that to happen.
  • Electrical systems will not fail immediately as the car hits the water.

Opening a front door turned out to be impossible. In one instance the occupants were able to open a rear door before it got submerged, but one would need to act fast. Windows could still be rolled down (as this doesn't require pushing against the pressure difference), and the same would presumably apply to a sunroof.


  • If you can open a rear door, do so – but you have only a few seconds to do this. Same probably goes for the hatch of a station wagon, if you can open it from the inside, though this was not tried (the car used was a sedan).
  • Failing that, open all windows (and sunroof, if any) as quickly as you can. You'd probably have a few minutes to do that.
  • Failing the above, breaking a window might work as well. If it's partially below the water line, though, I'd be worried about the risk of injury from shards of glass getting pushed inside by the water entering through the broken window. On the other hand, that might be an acceptable risk when your other option is drowning.
  • That show was Mythbusters. They did it in a pool, then they did it later in a lake so the car could actually flip.
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:27
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    No, it wasn't Mythbusters. It was a German production which aired in the late 1990s.
    – user149408
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:28
  • Don't worry about shards of glass unless the car is really old. Glass in car windows will shatter into small pieces, not form sharp shards
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 23:33
  • The 'waiting for a car to fully submerge' was also done on a British TV show called 'Dave Allen: God's Own Comedian'. Worth noting that this show was in Black and White to show how old it was. According to Dave Allen, the show did actually save someone's life when they went into the water and their son, who had watched the show, remembered the advice and got them out safely.
    – SGR
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 10:03

When the car goes into water, the best thing you can do for yourself is to stay calm. Your instinct is for flight, obviously, but getting yourself worked up is not going to do you any good. You have to think clearly. Going into the deep-end (sorry, had to) will most likely cause your demise.

Proactively, you need to know your car. It's strange, but even when submerged in water, the electrics will still have a chance to work. They won't short out automatically, so use them to roll the window down ... or at least try. You aren't hurting anything by doing so.

If that doesn't work, you'll most likely need to bust a window out. Don't even try to bust the front window out (at least for US cars), as this is laminated glass (glass/laminate/glass), which is very tough stuff. You'll wear yourself out in most cases before you'll break it out. The side windows are going to be your best bet, but you must get a stress riser formed, or you'll not get anywhere. Someone else mentioned using a headrest post ... this is an awesome idea, but you still have to hit the window hard enough for it to shatter. The back window is safety glass as well, but it is going to be much harder to get to than will the side windows.

Speaking of the back window, if you can get there on a car with a hatch, you can most likely get it to pop. The back end of the vehicle is usually the last to go down, as the engine will tip it forward. If you can pop the back hatch through the use of a manual popping mechanism, this will lead you to safety as well. It will also ensure the car doesn't take you down with it as you'll be escaping the back as it's going forward.

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    The headrest solution does not advocate hitting the window with the headrest. It advocates jamming one "leg" of the headrest into between the door and the window and then using the headrest as a lever. See the video the answer links to.
    – Taemyr
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 10:23

I would recommend avoiding places where your vehicle might sink. For example, don't use Apple GPS. Also consider riding a bike. This might make it easier to detect the problem before you have gotten too deep. Next, make sure you drive a vehicle with a sunroof. And finally, always make your friend get out of the car first. That way, if they sink, you can use them as a stepping stone. I know it's morbid, but if you want to survive a zombie apocalypse, you are going to have to improvise.

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    Nice post. Others will abhore it and delete. For now, I will appreciate. Thanks for the lulz Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 4:32

Every year hundreds die in submerged cars.

(1) Getting out of a sinking car is very difficult. The reason for this is that the car will list to the driver's side due to the weight of the steering column and the driver's weight. That means you will be located on side of the car tilted downward. It also means the driver's side will fill up first with water.

(2) Don't put too much faith in window breakers. They tend to get lost. I keep a heavy utility knife in the glove compartment. Since I use this knife to open packages all the time, I KNOW it is there and it never gets lost.

(3) The buoyancy of the car makes a big difference. If the water is not at window level, break the glass and exit out the passenger window or sun roof. In some situations the car will pivot up like the Titanic because of the weight of the engine. In this case your best move is to go into the back seat and break a rear passenger window, assuming you have a window breaker (like my knife which has a heavy metallic handle).

(4) Once water is all around you are in a very dangerous situation. You will not be able to see and will not be able to tell up from down. Also the car may be upside down or at a weird angle, even backwards and upside down. In this situation your best shot is to equalize a rear door but this is highly risky because the door has to FULLY UNDERWATER FOR 10 SECONDS before it equalizes--so that means you are holding your breath for 10 seconds before you can even open the door.. Climb into the back seat, roll down the passenger-side window, grab the rear passenger-side seat belt shoulder harness with the right hand, the door handle with the left hand, and wait for the water to fill over the door completely, then push it open with your feet and exit. Good luck, you'll need it.

Here is a video showing men getting out of a sinking car in a test:


Basically from this video you can see you have about 10 seconds max to get out of the car.

  • That video isn't typical... it's a 1980's car with crank windows and no back window at all, just open air. The MythBusters tests with a regular car with windows seemed to take close to a minute before completely filling with water.
    – Xen2050
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 21:12

It's fascinating to watch this Mythbusters episode, which takes your question one step farther: the car has turned upside down.

Try as he might, Adam can't escape until pressure equalizes. And even then, he needs to use some of the canned air. This really drives home the point that the window is your first, best way out. Either in the 3-5 seconds before the window is covered, or with the help of a window breaker, you need to get a window open, or things become substantially more grave in very little time. Your seat belt is also a complication, as well as one for anyone else in the car. Toddlers in car seats are a major issue.

I'd make my top three concerns:

  1. Getting my seat belt off.
  2. Getting a window open before electronics fail.
  3. Getting passengers out of their car seats.

Then, and only then, can you start fighting the current of water rushing in, in the opposite direction.


As others have stated, stay calm. Try to control your breathing. You may have a few moments to roll your windows down before the electronics fail. If you are in an older vehicle, wind it down. You will not be able to open the door until there is buildup inside the cabin.

Keep an emergency tool within reach and not inside the glovebox. If you do not have one, and for some reason you cannot bring your windows down, you can attempt to smash them with your seat belt buckle.


If possible, roll one of the windows down before the electrics fail, then you can get out of it - but beware that the car will fill up and sink quicker with a window open...

As others have said, a window-breaking tool is useful if you can't open one - but not kept in the glove compartment, you need it somewhere you can reach it with your seatbelt on, so that if the belt jams, you can use the tool's blade to cut your belt and get free.

Failing such a tool, you could also break the window with your key, or something else with a point that puts a stress fracture into the glass.

  • The key to an easy stress fracture is that the object needs to be harder than the glass, or at least have a sharp tip to concentrate the force. Using a brass key is going to be very difficult.
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 12:30
  • Yeah, but most car keys are steel these days - and if you don't have anything better to hand...
    – Nick C
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:25
  • True that steel is more popular on OEM keys... I just couldn't resist the key pun.
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 13:26
  • I carry an "emergency services" knife on me at all times. Has a seat belt cutter, and a window break on it. It's big enough to fit my hand well and be easy to make a good swing with. Why improvise when you can easily carry the right tool. And for me it was the Mythbusters episode that inspired me to carry one. They are cheap, legal, and easy to use. I recommend them highly.
    – cdunn
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 19:05

You do not have to panic if you can not open or break the window.

Take a big breath and when the interior fills up, the pressure difference disappears and you can open the door and swim out.

I heard this as advice for people falling into the Danube but have not tried it myself.

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    Oh, I see JPhi1618 has it already. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 12:21

You can't open the door once the water level gets above the bottom of your doors. Don't even try. You're just wasting your precious energy. What you must do, is wind the windows down before the water shorts out the electrics.

When people drown in cars, its often because they couldn't wind down the electric windows.

Another important thing to note. It is extremely difficult to break car windows, unless you have the right type of tool. Kicking the windows usually won't do anything.

  • Yup, good point for sure. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 23:24
  • As has been mentioned, once the pressure equalizes, you may be able to open the doors. By this stage though, you won't have much air left. Also if you're in deep water, you really want to get out before you sink to the bottom, or getting out of the car won't help, as you won't be able to make it to the surface in time. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 23:45

There is no doubt that panic must be avoided. Just having the confidence that you will get out, knowing what to do in advance, and having the right tool prepared and you will be fine.

According to the Mythbusters episode the keys are a glas break, and a seat belt cutter. Whatever tool you choose, testing it both gives you confidence in the tool and your ability to use them. Your local junk yard (breaker yard depending on which continent you call home) should have something cheap you can break up for testing / training.

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