#ReportersNotebook – Seatbelts, Windows, Out (Children First)
It is an overused TV cliché: “A parent’s worst nightmare.” However, an underwater car accident is literally one of my worst nightmares.
When I was pregnant, I had a reoccurring dream that I was on the Golden Gate Bridge during an earthquake and our car fell into the Bay. In my dream, I panicked, trying to figure out how to save the baby in the car seat. As dreams go, I always woke up before I figured it out.
My daughter is now a toddler, and that dream still haunts me. So when I walked into the newsroom yesterday, prepared for an interview on a completely different story, my knees buckled and I immediately felt nauseated when our managing editor told me two more little girls had drowned in a submerged vehicle.
It was the second time in less than two weeks that two young sisters died when the car they were riding in on the way to school plunged into a Northern California waterway.
Our assignment: Figure out how to increase the chances of your child surviving when a car plunges into the water.
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 four steps.
We interviewed Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, one of the foremost experts on water submersion. His research at the University of Manitoba is dubbed A.L.I.V.E., “Automobile submersion: Lessons in Vehicle Escape.”
After studying submersion accidents, statistics and sinking several cars themselves, Giesbrecht and his team determined what they believe to be the best method for surviving an underwater car accident.
To simplify, he’s narrowed it down to three words he hopes will become as well known as stop, drop and roll. When your car hits the water, remember:
Seatbelts, Windows, Out (Children first)
WINDOWS open or broken
OUT (Children First) oldest to youngest
Unbuckle your seatbelt first. Then, open or break a window. Next unbuckle your kids, oldest to youngest. Push them out the window and get out.
As initially reported on KPIX and here on Newsmom, Giesbrecht’s safety mantra originally included four key words—”SEATBELTS, WINDOWS, CHILDREN, OUT.” . But since we first published this story, he and his counterparts polished it down to three words, in an effort to help people better remember this advice in an emergency. We have updated our text to reflect the new recommendation.
Now, some may question the order of Seatbelts, Windows, Children, Out.
For instance, after the story aired, one viewer wanted to know why you would open the window before unbuckling the kids. “Wouldn’t water start rushing in?” she asked.
Yes, but Dr. Giesbrecht says:
The reason that “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. Then the water rises high enough to exert pressure on the side windows, and after that they cannot be opened or broken.
After that point, anyone left in the vehicle will most certainly drown. Therefore, if you open the window first, you can guide each child out the window as you free them, and have them hold on (outside) and wait for you to join them. Once the water rises high enough to flow in the side window, whoever is unbuckled will be able to exit.
However, if you focus on the children first, you will not try to open the window until everybody is free. If the water has risen to the side window level before everyone is unfastened, you will not be able to open the windows and everybody will be trapped.
Will emergency hammers work under water? Here’s his email response to that question and his advice on emergency hammers.
As for unbuckling kids oldest to youngest, he makes this recommendation for two reasons.
Older kids are also more likely be able to escape through the window and surface on their own. Also, he points out, if you unbuckle your infant first, you’ll likely need to hold them and won’t have free hands to help an older child if they need assistance.
Most importantly, he says the key to saving your kids in a sinking vehicle is getting them out of the car before you. Once you are out, Giesbrecht says, it is extremely difficult to reach back in and try to free your children.
The Car Seat Conundrum
In our interview, Dr. Giesbrecht also noted that the car seat chest clip can be problematic in emergency situations like these. In fact, he said he believes many deaths—children and adults—may be attributed to time spent struggling to unlatch the car seat chest clip.
It is important to note that the chest clip—properly positioned at armpit level—is critical to survival in a crash.
However, Dr. Giesbrecht noted that, unlike the crotch buckle, which generally has the big red button like a seat belt, there is no standard design for chest clips. He points out that some chest clips can be cumbersome to unbuckle in an emergency, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the car seat.
Incidentally, while investigating concerns about car seat flame retardants, I came across a patent for a quick-release system that releases the car seat straps with one pull of an emergency handle.
The owner of the patent said he met with a representative from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2008 and later shared his invention with several car seat manufacturers. However, he says, none were interested in testing it.
To our knowledge, there is currently no car seat on the market with an emergency release for the chest harness. We reached out to several major manufacturers yesterday to ask if they had tested, or were willing to research, “quick-release technology to help get children out of car seats quickly in a submersion crash or car fire.”
None of the companies directly answered the question, though Dorel provided a statement, included in the KPIX story.
We also asked NHTSA, which is the agency that regulates car seat manufacturers, if it had researched or considered encouraging quick-release technology in car seats. The agency said it needed more time to research an answer to our question.
In response to questions for a previous story about car seat flame retardants, NHTSA indicated it was concerned about getting kids out of car seats quickly in an emergency:
NHTSA believes there is a safety need to control how quickly flame can spread to afford time for caregivers to help their children escape the vehicle in the event of a fire. For this purpose, child seats, like motor vehicle seats, are required to prevent flame spread.
Parents who have lost—or struggled to save their children in an emergency—have reportedly petitioned the agency and manufacturers to develop and market emergency release options for car seats.
However, there is no indication that any car seat company or regulator is currently testing a car seat emergency release option.
According to Dr. Giesbrecht, 350 to 400 people die each year in submerged cars. That accounts for up to 10 percent of all drownings. In fact, those numbers indicate that more people drowned in submerged cars than in boating accidents last year.
While it’s not clear how many of those drownings involved children, or more specifically children in car seats, Dr. Giesbrecht believes that lives could be saved if car seats came with a simple, standard quick-release option.
Absent quick-release technology, Giesbrecht suggests parents practice unbuckling their child from the 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, Giesbrecht and his counterparts have decided to update the safety mantra from four 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”