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Gordon Giesbrecht, a University of Manitoba thermophysiologist, risked his life to develop scientifically backed recommendations for drivers who find themselves in a sinking vehicle. (Courtesy of Gordon Giesbrecht)
Gordon Giesbrecht, a University of Manitoba thermophysiologist, risked his life to develop scientifically backed recommendations for drivers who find themselves in a sinking vehicle. (Courtesy of Gordon Giesbrecht)

How to escape a sinking car Add to ...

In his latest bit of hair-raising research, the man known as "professor popsicle" became doctor dunk.

Gordon Giesbrecht, the renowned University of Manitoba thermophysiologist known for personally testing the body's response to hypothermia more than 40 times and appearing on David Letterman to tread water in a vat of ice water, has retired from human ice-cube research in favour of something warmer, but no less terrifying.

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In the August issue of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, Dr. Giesbrecht publishes the results of some 100 vehicle submersions. In 30 of those, he played the hapless driver stuck in a sinking car. Supported by the Manitoba government, the research is intended to develop scientifically supported recommendations for people stuck in submerged automobiles, a scenario that accounts for 10 per cent of all drownings in Canada.



Gordon Giesbrecht's first conclusion: If there's any air left in the car, the pressure outside will be greater and the vehicle doors will be impossible to open.



It was a frightening study, fraying Dr. Giesbrecht's nerves on the first attempt.

After a crane dropped him into a lake seated in a beat-up Ford Tempo, he calmly waited for the water to cover the door, operating on the common belief that the pressure inside and out would equalize, allowing him to easily swing the door open. It didn't.

With the water rising past his neck, he reached his first conclusion: As long as there's any air left in the car, the pressure outside will be greater and the doors will be impossible to open. He took one big breath from the shrinking bubble of air inside, cranked open the window and made for the surface.

"I got such a scare that first time," Dr. Giesbrecht said, noting that there was a scuba tank lying next to him in case he couldn't escape. "I'd been preparing for this moment for months, and it was all I could do to get out. For the average person, this would be tough; getting out is just not going to happen."



It's possible to swim out of the vehicle through the window, Gordon Giesbrecht concluded, even with a torrent of water flowing in. Remember to push the kids out first, Dr. Giesbrecht says.





Here are a few of Dr. Giesbrecht's hard-won recommendations that might improve your chances should you ever find yourself in a sinking car.

1. Don't touch your cellphone. Some people have the impression a car will float long enough for them to call 911. A car will float for a minute, and you need to escape in that first minute. Beyond that, you'll have very little chance of getting out.

2. Release your seatbelt. In panic mode, many people forget this step.

3. Open or break a window. Don't bother with the door. If the electric windows short out, use a small hammer or small punch. And if you don't carry one of those, buy one soon. Dr. Giesbrecht keeps one mounted on his dash.

4. Grab the kids. If you have younger passengers, unbuckle them starting with the oldest first.

5. Get out, pushing the kids ahead of you. Dr. Giesbrecht found that it was possible to escape through a window, even with a torrent of water flowing in.

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