Today, thoughts about thinking while I'm drowning.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Crossing the campus on the
way to the radio station, I run into my colleague
John Hunsucker. "What's new with the Heimlich
maneuver?" I ask him. Hunsucker has been teaching
lifeguards to use the Heimlich grip to flush water
out of drowning victims. His method has already
saved a lot of lives. But today his mind is on
other things. "John," he says, "suppose your car
goes into the bayou. How do you get out of it once
you're in the water?"
I figure I'm pretty cool under pressure. I tell how
I'd open the door right away or kick out a window
and swim for it. Hunsucker blocks all my ideas.
"You think you're strong enough to kick out a car
window?" "Did you remember the seat belt?" I'm
getting uncomfortable. I feel cold water rising as
I guess the wrong moves.
In the first place, many cars roll down embankments
and enter water with windows closed and intact. A
sealed car floats two to four minutes. We have two
minutes to get everyone unbelted and decide what to
do. Meanwhile, water leaks through the engine fire
wall and the heavier front of the car sinks first.
Our instinct is to follow the air bubble into the
back seat where we can't get out.
The car goes down nose first and often flips onto
its back. Since seat belts don't retract under
water, it's easy to tangle in them. Electric window
controls fail after about five minutes. Once we're
on the bottom, we get disoriented. We have to go to
the floor above to breathe, and the window below to
If we still have our wits about us while the car's
afloat, we have to get everyone ready before we
open the window. Once we do, water floods in and we
have maybe 20 seconds to get out. But if the
window's under water, pressure can hold it shut.
Then we have to crack the door. Once we do that,
our time is really limited.
Hunsucker says 350 people die this way every year,
far fewer than die by, say, tobacco use or drunk
driving. But like those deaths, so many of these
could be prevented by thinking ahead.
Once I only buckled my seat belt because I had to.
Then one actually saved me from serious injury.
That's why I now force myself through the
uncomfortable process of thinking through
sinking-car scenarios -- feeling fear I'd rather
not think about.
The chances are slim that I'll ever face that
situation. But Hunsucker tells me about a man who
got out of a sinking car -- then stood on its roof
as it sank, desperately trying to break in the rear
window to get his wife out as well. That's a horror
no one should have to carry.
This is no place where we want to rely on
instantaneous invention. This is a problem that
each of us needs to solve ahead of time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Donohue, W. A., Michigan State Police, Operation
Star: Submerged Transportation Accident Research.
Searchlines, Vol. 10, No. 1,
Donohue, W. A., Operation S.T.A.R.: Submerged
Transportation Accident Research. Final
Report, Michigan Department of State Police.
East Lansing, MI: Department of Communication,
Michigan State University.
Hunsucker, J. L., The Heimlich Maneuver and
Drowning. Splash, Vol. 16, No. 5,
For his counsel and for source materials, I am
grateful to Professor John Hunsucker, Industrial
Engineering Department, University of Houston,
Houston, TX, 77204-4812, 713-743-4194. Hunsucker is
presently working on the formulation of escape
protocols for sinking vehicles. He makes the point
that fear makes rational action very difficult in a
sinking car. He recommends the following minimum
protocol for use if your car is still afloat.
- Release your seat belt (but not until you land.
You won't survive the sinking car if you have not
first survived the accident that put you in the
- Undo the door locks.
- Get any passengers out of their belts and ready
- Roll down the windows.
- Get any children out the window first.
- Follow them out.
- Opening the door is a last resort. Open it only
if you cannot, for some reason, get a window down.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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