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Florida has water everywhere. Here’s what to do if your car is sinking with you inside


If your car ends up in a canal, a lake or a pond, do you know how to escape? It’s a situation people might not think about when they get in the car, despite Florida’s miles and miles of waterways. Then the Fisher Island ferry tragedy happened. South Florida philanthropist Emma Afra and friend Viviane Brahms of New York died after police say their car accelerated suddenly through a barrier aboard the Pelican ferryboat and into Government Cut, just after the ferry departed from the island. Since then, four other cars went into water:

  • On Feb. 22, a 36-year-old woman’s car went over the curb and plunged into the Intracoastal Waterway in Boynton Beach.
  • On Feb. 23, a woman had a seizure while driving and crashed into a canal in Boca Raton.
  • On Feb. 24, divers searched for a 41-year-old mother and her 5-year-old boy whose car had plunged into Estero Bay on Florida’s southwest coast.
  • On Feb. 27, a man was found inside a completely submerged car in a Tamarac canal. The Boca Raton woman was the only one to survive. The recent tragedies have many wondering what they should do if they ever find themselves in a similar situation.

And there’s good reason to prepare: 

  • Florida is one of the Top 5 states to have the largest number of fatalities in crashes “where the most harmful event for the vehicle” was partially or fully being submerged in water, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Data provided to the Miami Herald by the Federal Highway Administration shows Florida saw the highest overall number of fatalities in crashes that involved partially or fully submerged vehicles since 2014 to 2018 with a total of 179. California ranked second during this time-frame with a total of 72 fatalities. The data does not mean every fatality was caused by drowning, the administration states.
  • Florida was also one of the states to account for slightly more than half of the total drowning deaths in 48 states and D.C., according to an earlier Federal Highway Administration report that looked at data from 2004 to 2007.
  • While the submerged car-related deaths are a small dent in Florida’s overall crash fatalities, partially or fully submerged cars is one of the most common dive calls Miami-Dade Fire receives, said Lt. Kirsten Miller. She says it typically takes one to two minutes for a car to fill with water and can be a difficult situation for any person to escape, especially if they are shocked or injured.

“Having a plan is key to survival,” Miller said. Here’s what she says you should do to escape a submerged car:


  • Have a center punch tool and a seat belt cutter in your car that is easy to reach and find. Miller recommends you buy one that can be placed on your key-chain, hung from your sun visor, rear-view mirror or put in your center console. You can buy a tool that has both features from online retailers such as Amazon, your local auto store and other retailers such as Walmart. Some can cost less than $10.
  • Learn which car windows are made with tempered glass. The breakable glass is normally used for the driver and passenger side windows, but some newer car models are beginning to replace it with laminated glass, a stronger material that won’t shatter, even when cracked, to meet federal safety standards aimed at reducing ejections in high-speed collisions. This is a problem if you need to escape. An AAA study conducted last year found that six commonly used seat belt cutting and window breaking tools were not able to break through the stronger glass. The motor club federation says one in three 2018 models use the strong safety glass (most commonly used for the windshield) for its side windows. Most cars still have at least one tempered glass window that will shatter if you hit it with a window-breaking tool in the lower corner of the window. To see which windows in your car are breakable, look for a label located in the bottom corner of each side window. If it says “Tempered,” it means you should be able to shatter it with a center punch.
window label.PNG

A label, like the one pictured, can typically be found in the bottom corner of the side window. This label should indicate whether the glass is tempered or laminated. 


  • Practice your escape plan Practice taking your seat belt off and your child’s seat belt or harness in the dark and with your eyes closed to simulate an event where you can’t see well because water has entered the car or it’s night, Miller said. “Creating an escape plan and then practicing the escape plan is the best way to lower your anxiety,” Miller said. “You’re going to have anxiety. It’s a dangerous situation you will hopefully never find yourself in but to create an escape plan and then practice it is the best way to survive it.”



Miami-Dade Fire Rescue says you need to try and lower your windows first if your car plunges into water. File photo.


  • Lower the car window immediately and remove or cut your seat belt.
  • If the car window is not lowering, you will need to break the driver side or one of the passenger windows using a center punch tool on the side of the window in the bottom corner.
  • You can also remove your headrest and use the metal part of it to break the window or kick the window out, but this is very difficult and should only be done as a last resort. If you do have to kick the window, hit the side of it with your feet.
  • Help children escape first. Older kids should be the first ones out of the car so they can potentially help you save the younger children.
  • If you feel disoriented and can’t tell which way is the surface, look for the light or follow the bubbles, which will always float up.
  • To help you swim, push against the car like you would a pool’s wall to help you move quickly to the surface. Only use your arms to swim out of the car if there is someone behind you to avoid hitting them.
  • Once you escape the car, swim immediately to land and call 911 to have rescuers examine you for any potential injuries.


  • Witnesses who see a car plunge into a body of water need to call 911 and mark where the car went down (throw a rope or snap a photo) to help rescuers quickly create a search perimeter if the car sinks before they arrive. “Some of our canals are 30 feet deep and pitch black water with zero visibility,” Miller said, “so knowing exactly where we are diving when we go down will potentially save a life.”

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