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If you crash your car in water, these tools could save your life

Eleven people died in Florida in 2017 after their cars went into the water
An SUV is retrieved from the water off of the Howard Frankland bridge on Aug. 28 in Tampa. Rescue and transportation experts recommend drivers keep certain tools in their cars to help them escape in such a scenario.
An SUV is retrieved from the water off of the Howard Frankland bridge on Aug. 28 in Tampa. Rescue and transportation experts recommend drivers keep certain tools in their cars to help them escape in such a scenario. [ FHP ]
Published Sep. 27, 2019
Updated Sep. 27, 2019

Living in Tampa Bay means driving around and over water on a near-daily basis.

With that comes the risk of cars crashing into the water, their drivers and occupants struggling to escape.

Two such crashes on the Howard Frankland Bridge sent vehicles into Tampa Bay in the last month. One driver died. Another was able to get free.

While so much of a car crash seems unpredictable, safety and transportation experts say there are tools drivers can keep in their cars to help them escape if their vehicle is ever submerged or catches on fire.

Related story: ‘This not Nascar.’ Body of driver who fell off Howard Frankland found. Charges could be filed.

These tools are intended to help people in an emergency by breaking through side windows to create a way out of the vehicle. Parents buy them for their kids, firefighters for their spouses and people who like to be prepared pick them up themselves.

“I think I’ve always had some sort of device to break out of a car in every car I’ve owned,” said Eagle Scout Gabriel Osejo, 26, of Tampa. “The scout motto is to be prepared, and while thankfully I’ve never had to use it in an emergency, it’s comforting to know I’ve got the tools available to me if I need them.”

In 2017, about 1,800 people died in an estimated 21,000 crashes in which the vehicle caught fire or became partially or fully submerged, according to numbers from the American Automobile Association.

Related story: Car drives off Howard Frankland bridge and enters Tampa Bay after steering fails

The American Automobile Association tested six vehicle safety tools, two shown here, to see how effectively they could shatter car windows. Spring-loaded tools, like the one on the left, were found to be more effective than hammer-style toools, like the one on the right.
The American Automobile Association tested six vehicle safety tools, two shown here, to see how effectively they could shatter car windows. Spring-loaded tools, like the one on the left, were found to be more effective than hammer-style toools, like the one on the right. [ Florida American Automobile Association ]

Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Dougherty encouraged drivers to keep some sort of tool, which he said often cost less than $15, in their car to help them escape if needed.

AAA Florida spokesman Mark Jenkins said the transportation group recommends people buy a spring-loaded escape tool, as opposed to a hammer. These small tools, often the size of a tube of chapstick, puncture the window and proved more effective in breaking glass, according to a July AAA study.

The study tested six escape tools: three spring-loaded, three hammer-style. Each of the spring-loaded tools was able to break the tempered windows found in most cars. Only one hammer tool was able to break the glass, with the other two failing to crack the window after five strikes.

But here’s a wrinkle: none of the tools were able to break laminated glass that is becoming more popular in cars in recent years. That stronger glass is meant to prevent people from being ejected and injured during crashes. But that added security means it’s harder for people to break out should they become trapped.

“Having the right tool may not be enough,” Jenkins said. “You need to make sure you know what types of window you have, because that may be the difference between life and death.”

Most cars have a label in the bottom corner of the side window that should indicate if the glass is tempered or laminated, Jenkins said. If not, AAA advises contacting the vehicle manufacturer. People should also check if windows in different parts of the car use different glass, in case the windows in back are tempered and easier to break.

Dougherty said knowing these details ahead of time, along with testing out tools to make sure you know how to use them, is essential should a crash occur. Planning saves time, and time is precious in an emergency.

“They’ve got anywhere from 30 to 120 seconds to get out of the vehicle,” Dougherty said. “That’s not a lot of time. ... It’s important to stay calm and to have a plan.”

Related story: Aggressive driving led to death in the Howard Frankland crash. But millions of people do it, and it’s getting worse.

Both Dougherty and Jenkins stressed the importance of keeping the item easily accessible, so as not to waste effort scrambling to find it should a crash occur.

Jenkins suggested using Velcro to affix the spring-loaded glass breaker, which often includes a seatbelt cutter, under the steering wheel.

While some people feel more comfortable buying a multi-use tool that also features a flashlight or charger, AAA suggests avoiding tools with extra features. These functions don’t improve the performance of the tool itself, and could make it bigger, clunkier or more difficult to wield, Jenkins said.

Wallace Joughin, 35, of St. Petersburg has kept safety and escape tools in his car for years, taking stock of what he might need if his car crashed into the water or broke down in a remote area. He keeps his items — a waterproof flashlight and folding knife with a glass breaker — in his center console for easy access.

“I like to think I would be prepared, but thinking and doing are two different things, especially in a stressful situation like a crash,” Joughin said.

More than 475 Floridians were involved in a crash where a car ran into a body of water or canal in 2017, according to data maintained by the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Eleven people died as a result.

Dougherty estimated his agency responds to about 10 calls for submerged vehicles a year.

If a car with children crashes into the water, Dougherty said it is best to help the older child escape before moving to younger kids. Older children are more likely to be able to swim or follow directions while the adult works to free a toddler or infant.

He also suggested teaching the SWO acronym: cut the Seatbealt, break the Window and get Out.

Michelle Pratt, a certified car seat safety technician and owner of Safe in the Seat, said she became more concerned about having a vehicle escape plan after she became a parent. She bought a spring-loaded window breaker after her son was born and keeps it on her keychain. She’s also gifted them to other moms.

Pratt suggested parents talk to their kids in about car safety in a way that is age and developmentally appropriate, just like they would with fire safety skills.

“You don’t want to scare them and you have to be careful, but moms know their kids,” Pratt said. “We need to have plans in place for emergencies ... and talk to our kids about what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.