What To Do If You’re Caught Driving In a Flash Flood

Getting caught in a flash flood while driving is both terrifying and deadly. How do you escape a sinking vehicle alive, and how can you avoid this in the first place?
Jason Snyman
2019-04-24

KwaZulu-Natal has endured heavy rains and flooding over the last couple of days, with recent reports stating that at least 51 people have been confirmed deceased so far. Hundreds have been left homeless, now taking shelter in churches and community halls around the province. Roads have been shut down, schools have closed and evacuations continue in the areas hit hardest, such as Umlazi. 

Now is certainly not the time to be out on the roads if you’re living in these areas. Unfortunately, some of us may have to venture out, and because it’s so easy to find yourself in a terrifying situation, we put together a quick guide on how to drive safely in the rain, and what to do if you’re caught in a sudden flash flood. 

Do Not Cross A Flooded Bridge

Ideally, you want to stay away from flooded areas entirely. This, however, may not always be possible when you’re caught off guard, and at times you may have to navigate some dangerous situations in order to get to safety. 

One of the most dangerous situations is having to cross a flooded bridge. People often attempt to cross these without knowing the full depth of the water or strength of the current. Many drivers will risk driving through a pool of water, but roads which collect water are more vulnerable to collapse and it is easy to underestimate their depth. As a general rule – avoid driving through any water that comes up higher than the middle of your tyre. At only 30cm of water, your tyres could lift from the ground and you could be washed away.

Stick to your lowest gear and drive slow and steady. Try to drive in the middle of the road, where the water is lowest, and do not drive through what is visibly fast-flowing water. It’s a lot, lot more powerful than you might think. 

When given a choice of crossing a flooded bridge or taking a longer, safer route home – always choose the latter. You won’t know how strong that current is until you’re in it, and in many cases, attempting to drive through deep water will cause loss of control and engine stalling. Then you’re in the middle of a river with no power to escape, and the chances of being washed downstream are strong. 

Cars are found days later, kilometres downstream.

How To Escape Your Vehicle

Whether you’ve attempted to cross a flooded bridge or road, or even if you’ve been caught off guard anywhere else, the vehicle you’re in could either save your life or seal your fate. There are a few things you can do to survive being caught up in a raging flood.

If you’ve been caught in rising waters – but there isn’t a current – abandon your vehicle as soon as possible and make your way to higher ground. This is the best-case scenario in a flood. 

If you’ve been hit hard and your vehicle has gone off the side of a bridge or into a river, your seatbelt could save your life – just as if you’ve had a collision with another vehicle. If your vehicle begins to sink, however, you’ll need to get this off and exit the vehicle as quickly and safely as you can. 

Think quickly – a car’s electrical system won’t last long when submerged in water. If you have electric windows, act fast and get them down (yes, open them all the way), and be sure to unlock your doors while you can. 

When fully submerged, and with pressure building up against your car, you won’t be able to open your car door. You’ll only be able to do so once the car itself has been filled with water, and the pressure has equalised. A car full of water will sink a lot faster, and cars almost always sink engine-side down. If you’ve got your windows down – this is the best escape route – don’t waste too much strength or energy trying to force the door open just yet. 

If your windows are closed, you’re going to have to smash one – which is a lot easier said than done. The glass is thick, and to get through it, you’ll have to use any solid object in your vehicle. This could be a steering lock, a torch, a high-heel shoe – anything you have. 

If you’re unable to break the window, your next best – and most terrifying – option is to wait until the vehicle is fully emerged. Then open the door. To do this, however, you’ll have to wait until the vehicle is filled with water (which takes about two minutes when fully submerged) and sinking, and hope that you can hold your breath long enough to make it back up to the surface. 

If you’re swept away by water upon exiting the car, lift your toes and point them downstream. This will help you manoeuvre yourself around obstacles. Try to grab on to anything which you can use to pull yourself to safety.

When you’ve made it to safety, seek emergency care right away, as you may have suffered shock or injuries from the accident – and could be at risk of hypothermia. 

Driving In A Storm

Stormy weather is no time to take any chances with your safety. When possible, allow for more time to travel and avoid having to rush into bad weather. Make sure that your vehicle is prepared for the trip.

Take it easy out there. Driving recklessly increases chances of hydroplaning (aquaplaning). 

If you do end up hydroplaning, slowly lift your foot from the accelerator, but do not brake harshly or move your steering wheel violently. This will make it much, much worse. Sudden stops and turns, likewise, may throw the vehicle into a skid. 

Here are a couple more tips to keep in mind when navigating wet roads in the heavy rain.

  1. Ensure that your headlights and brake lights are working.
  2. Switch on your headlights, especially when natural light is low. Remember this also alerts other drivers to your presence on the road.
  3. Ensure your windscreen and wipers are in good condition.
  4. Check that your tyres are in good shape.
  5. Don’t speed, and maintain a safe following distance.
  6. Buckle up.
  7. Don’t cross low-lying bridges, even if you think your car can make it.
  8. Slow down before entering standing water on the road as this may cause the car to “pull” to the side without warning, and it may be deeper than it looks.
  9. Avoid areas where there are known to be adverse conditions.
  10. Adjust your speed for the condition of the road. Just because a road is marked at 120km, doesn’t mean it is safe to travel at this speed in all conditions.
  11. Concentrate on the road, not on anything else.
  12. If you are going to an area known to have bad weather, and there is a possibility you may be stuck for extended periods, remember to take extra blankets, appropriate clothing, and refreshments. And, ensure your tank has enough fuel for the journey.
  13. Keep your phone charged in case of an emergency.

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