Experts share tips on how to escape from a vehicle submerged underwater

Zooming across Alligator Alley with the radio up and the windows down, most drivers pay little attention to the canals that run for more than 75 miles on either side of the interstate.

If they do, it’s more than likely to catch a glimpse of an alligator floating in the water, not to consider what they would do if they ended up in the drink with the gator. But despite the recent addition of cable fences along the Alligator Alley canals, authorities still frequently respond to calls of vehicles in the water.

“We cover 20-some odd miles of Alligator Alley, and we’ve got canals on either side,” said Golden Gate Fire spokesman Victor Hill. “There is a good potential that if someone gets into a crash and leaves the road, they’re going into a canal.”

On Tuesday just after 6 p.m., Mississippi residents Delbert Mitchell Reed, 44, and Cynthia Anne Reed, 40, were killed when their pickup left the road on Alligator Alley and ended up overturned in a canal near the 99 mile marker, just east of the toll plaza. Less than a half hour later Collier County resident Marie Paul, 54, 4900 Catalina Drive, was killed when her sport-utility vehicle sank in a small lake off of U.S. 41 East near Lely Resort.

Driving into a lake or canal would certainly be one of the most terrifying accidents a driver could have, but experts say that once in the water, there are ways to get out alive.

“If a vehicle goes into the canal and the vehicle is slowly submerging, the first thing you need to do is not panic,” said Sgt. Clarence Campbell of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Most vehicles that accidentally drive into the water will float for 30 to 60 seconds, according to a report on www.lifesaving.com.

In that situation authorities say the best option is to roll down a window, if possible, and escape before water completely floods the vehicle. A witness to the accident in East Naples reported that Paul actually rolled up her windows instead of escaping.

If for some reason the windows won’t open, people should attempt to open the door, Campbell said.

“The more the vehicle becomes submerged, the more water pressure builds up and it becomes harder to open the door,” he said.

If the windows won’t come down and the doors won’t open, authorities said people should attempt to break out a side window with their feet or with a tool instead of the windshield, which is laminated and harder to break. Pocket-size window punch tools, which are designed to shatter windows, can be purchased at some auto parts stores, hardware stores and online for $10 to $15.

People should be patient as water fills the vehicle.

“If you try to swim out as that water is rushing in, it may delay your escape,” Campbell said.

The escape process is similar in an overturned vehicle and in the dark, Campbell said, though in those scenarios people may have to use the fixtures inside the vehicle, like the steering wheel and the pedals, to get their bearings straight.

Greg Speers, a spokesman for the East Naples Fire Department, recommends that people orient themselves to their vehicle and practice escaping from it in the dark.

“I think it’s a good idea for people to practice that,” Speers said. “Maybe even get the kids in the car and buckled in. See if you can release yourself and release the children in little or no light.”

Hill said it is important for people to understand the dangers of being trapped in the water and should be prepared if the situation were ever to occur. But more importantly, people should try to keep their vehicles out of the water in the first place.

“The key thing is, regardless of that, drive safe and buckle your seat belt,” Hill said. “You’ve got to be safe when you’re on the road. ... That will prevent most of the problems right there.”

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