State trooper talks escaping from submerged vehicle

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Arkansas State Trooper Dwight Griffin spoke to the Trumann Lions Club about exiting a submerged vehicle recently. (DT Photo/Corey Clairday)

When Dwight Griffin first became an Arkansas State Trooper five years ago, he was sent to work Helena/West Helena. It was there while in pursuit of a Jeep that he lost control of his squad car and nosed into a ditch filled with eight feet of water.

Griffin, who currently works with the state police in Poinsett County, shared his story last week with the Trumann Lions Club.

When Griffin hit the water, he said his first thoughts as he watched the water rush over his hood were surprising. "My first thought was I've lost my job," Griffin said. "My second thought was maybe I can salvage the motor."

He immediately turned the motor off. The first thing he tried to do as his car sank was open the door, but it would not budge because of the water pressure. Griffin then turned the ignition so he could roll the window down and swim out. He got on top of the car and stripped off his equipment so he could swim to the bank.

Griffin survived due to quick thinking and action, and he listed several tips to remember for getting out of a submerged vehicle. First, he recommended bracing oneself when one realizes a crash is imminent. He said to brace one's hands at the three and nine o'clock positions on the steering wheel with thumbs up or away from the wheel. The reason for this is the impact could set off the airbag, which could injure or break someone's arms or thumbs if they are in the way.

Next, Griffin said to unbuckle one's seatbelt. "That's the first thing I did when I hit the water," he said. Griffin said an easy motto to remember is "Seatbelt, Children, Window, Out." The driver should remove their seatbelt before helping anyone else. He also recommended unbuckling the oldest children first since they can help unbuckle the younger ones.

Griffin said to forget about cell phones and purses. "Nothing in a purse is more important than self preservation," he said.

The first thing to be done after seat belts are undone is to get the window down. This should be done as soon as the car hits the water because once the car is completely submerged, the 300 pounds of water pressure will make opening the window nearly impossible.

"The reason not to try the door is, if you wait five seconds after you hit the water, it's not physically possible to open because of the pressure," Griffin said. Opening the door before it becomes impossible invites a quick sink effect, whereas a car will stay afloat for about 30 seconds if the door remains closed, allowing one time to undo seatbelts and get out the window. Once the car begins to sink, it will go down nose-first since the engine makes that end heavier. The door will only open once the car sinks to the bottom and fills with water, which will equalize the pressure. But one should try to get out through the window before that happens.

"If you can't open the window, break it," Griffin said. "That may feel counter-intuitive to let water in, but the sooner you get the window open, the sooner someone can get out." To break a window, he recommended kicking it near the edges rather than the center. Alternatively, one could use a heavy object with a sharp end aimed at the center of the window. One example he gave was to take off the head rest and use the sharp prongs.

Once the window is open, one should take a deep breath and swim out. "If you get disoriented, look which way the bubbles go. Bubbles go up," Griffin said.

Griffin ended by talking about the dangers of texting and driving. He said the degree to which texting affects one's driving is the equivalent to driving after having four beers. "You are 23 times more likely to crash," Griffin said.

Texting while driving is illegal in the state of Arkansas. Using a phone while driving is illegal for anyone under 17. Ages 18-21 can use a hands-free phone, and anyone over 21 can make phone calls. Commercial vehicles are only allowed to use hands-free phones.

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