It’s an all-too-common tragedy. Four children have died in just over a week in the Bay Area after being trapped in submerged cars.
Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, from the University of Manitoba, says his research demonstrates that it is possible to survive in a sinking car, provided you follow three steps.
Professor Giesbrecht is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on cold water submersion. He says 350-to-400 Americans drown in submerged vehicles each year, accounting for up to 10% of all drowning deaths. According to data from Centers for Disease Control, that’s more than the number of people who drown in boating accidents.
Giesbrecht says the key to surviving is to remember this mantra: Seatbelts, Windows, Out (Children First).
WINDOWS open or broken
OUT (Children First) oldest to youngest
He says, as soon as you hit the water, unbuckle your seatbelt. “You can’t go anywhere if your seatbelt is on,” Giesbrecht told KPIX 5.
Next, get a window open, any way you can. Giesbrecht says electric windows should work if opened quickly. If not, figure out a way to break the glass. However, he advises against trying to break the windshield noting that the front of the car is generally the heaviest and sinks first. Instead, he recommends focusing on the driver or back-passenger windows.
Then, Giesbrecht says get the kids out by unbuckling them and then pushing them out the window, before you get out of the car yourself.
“Once you get out of the vehicle, it becomes very difficult to get back in and rescue somebody,” Giesbrecht said.
He advises starting with the oldest child, who may be able to assist in aiding younger children.
Finally, Giesbrecht says get out of the car yourself, carrying or assisting small children and infants.
Giesbrecht used to advise opening the window after unbuckling the passengers, but has now reversed the order because he says the window will be impossible to open or break once the car sinks deep enough for water to push against the windows.
“‘Windows Open’ precedes ‘Children’, is the absolute necessity to establish an exit before the water level makes it impossible. Normally, after a car lands in the water there is about one minute during which the windows can be opened,” he explained.
Additionally, in accidents involving children, Giesbrecht believes car seats may be playing a role in hindering rescues. He says the chest clips, used to keep children belted into the seat, can be cumbersome and prevent a quick escape. While critical to keeping kids safe in a crash, he says the chest clips are not uniform and can be difficult to unbuckle in an emergency, especially for someone unfamiliar with the car seat.
He advocates a standard design that would allow a quick release in case of emergencies, similar to the red button that is standard on the crotch buckle and on seatbelts.
“There needs to be something simple where everyone can do it,” Giesbrecht said.
While emergency release technology for car seats was patented nearly a decade ago, KPIX 5 is unaware of any car seat on the market that offers an emergency release option.
When asked if it was willing to research quick-release technology, Dorel Juvenile, the world’s largest child restraint manufacturer said, “We have extensive research and design programs and processes that are constantly evaluating new technologies and incorporating them into products when we determine them to be advantageous and reliable.”
Other car seat manufacturers declined to respond to the request for comment.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates car seats, does not require them to have an emergency release or standardized buckles.
KPIX 5 asked the NHTSA if the agency had researched or considered mandating emergency release technology in car seats. NHTSA said it was unable to respond to the request for comment on deadline.
Absent quick release technology, Giesbrecht suggests parents practice unbuckling their child from his or her car seat with their eyes closed. He also stresses that anyone who drives your child should be familiar with the car seat and practice unbuckling them quickly.
UPDATE: In an effort to help people remember this advice in an emergency, Geisbrecht and his counterparts have decided to update the safety mantra from 4 key words to three. As a result, we have updated the text above to reflect the new recommendation.
“SEATBELTS, WINDOWS, CHILDREN, OUT” has been updated to “SEATBELTS, WINDOWS, OUT: Children First”