Submersion Lawsuit Highlights Escape Design Gaps

On August 19, 2011, Washington Boulevard, a Pittsburgh thoroughfare built over a stream bed filled suddenly with nine feet of water, trapping Kimberly A. Griffith and her two daughters in their Chrysler minivan. Griffith, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, drowned in the minivan, unable to open the power windows, while the outside water pressure made it impossible to open the vehicle’s doors. Mary Safill, a 72-year-old woman who was also caught up in the flash flood on Washington Street, managed to escape her car, but drowned in the torrent.

Earlier this month, the law firm of Swensen, Perer & Kontos filed a lawsuit on behalf of the victims’ families. The civil action names eight defendants, including Chrysler for failing to warn consumers about the hazards of vehicle submersion and for a failure to implement escape technology.

Motor vehicle submersions are small but significant portion of motor vehicle deaths.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, using the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the National Automotive Sampling System – Crashworthiness Data Systems (NASS-CDS) has reported that an average of 384 occupants die in motor vehicle crashes each year – not including those that occur during floods. An internal NHTSA analysis of non-flooding submersion deaths showed that most occurred as the result of a collision or rollover, that the windows were already smashed by impacts, and that most occupants were already injured before the vehicle hit the water. 

In the published version of the NHTSA research, Drowning Deaths In Motor Vehicle Traffic Accidents, author Rory Austin says the little is known about drowning deaths that occur as the result of a traffic crash. His analysis found that “63 percent of the passenger vehicle drowning fatalities involved a rollover, and 12 percent involved a collision with another motor vehicle. The most common passenger vehicle crash scenario was a single-vehicle rollover accounting for 59 percent of the fatalities. These crashes frequently involved running off the road and colliding with a fixed object prior to the rollover and immersion. In cases with known restraint use, the victim was not using any form of restraint system 52 percent of the time.”

Research by Gordon Giesbrecht and Gerren McDonald of the University of Manitoba concluded the opposite: “Many, if not most, victims die from drowning rather than from trauma.” In some industrialized nations, such as New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. motor vehicle submersions. account for a significant proportion of all accidental drowning deaths – from 7 to 11.6 percent Giesbrecht and McDonald call motor vehicle submersions the deadliest type of single vehicle crash.

Vehicle submersions caused by flooding are a major subset of these fatalities. A comprehensive study of all flooding deaths in the U.S., from 1959 -2005 found that the annually about 100 people, on average, perish in floods, making them the second-deadliest weather related hazard, after heat. More than 60 percent of those deaths occur in vehicles, according to the 2008 research published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. The National Weather Service has tried to educate the public about vehicle submersions due to storm-related flooding with a Turn Around, Don’t Drown campaign: “In the last 30 years, inland flooding has caused more than half of the deaths associated with tropical storms and hurricanes in the United States….each year, most people killed by floodwaters meet that end because they attempt to drive across flooded roadways in their cars or trucks.”  

Despite the high fatality rates, there has been very little attention paid to the concept of escapeworthiness. The last time NHTSA explored the issue was in the 1970s, when the agency published studies conducted by the Oklahoma Research Institute on land and water escapes. Since then, the agency has periodically performed incidence research, but has not explored automotive design solutions, nor public education initiatives to teach motorists how and when to escape a rapidly sinking vehicle. 

More recently research by Giesbrecht and Gerren redefines the flotation phase of a submersion event, clarifies the best options for occupant survival and identifies other countermeasures. In Vehicle submersion: a review of the problem and how the high mortality rate can be reduced, now in press at Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, the authors show that the Flotation Phase, formerly thought of as “the entire period from when the vehicle lands in the water until it is completely submersed,” is actually the time period “from water impact until water rises to the bottom of side windows.” This flotation phase typically last for about a minute, and is the period when escape is easiest, and the survival probability the highest. The best escape route is through the side windows, while the vehicle is still floating.

Giesbrecht began his research in 2005, after testifying at the inquest of a snow plow driver who died after clearing a winter ice road when his vehicle broke through the ice on Lone Island Lake, Manitoba. An expert in hypothermia, Giesbrecht focused his opinion on the driver’s potential for survival in the frigid waters.

“I thought that cold water was the main issue for this victim,” he recalled. “We started looking for information and there was nothing. We started doing research and found that things I suggested at the inquest did not tell the whole story.  We took a five-ton snow plow and broke it through the ice, and the vehicle basically sunk in three seconds. The bottom line was: he would have drowned regardless of the water temperature. The more important issue was the lack of an escape route. That got us into looking what are vehicle sinking characteristics and how they affect how you might act.”

Many people waste the minute or so until the vehicle is submerged, calling 911 or a loved one. Giesbrecht’s research also found that most of the professional advice to the public – amplified by the popular media – practically guaranteed drownings. The conventional wisdom held that  occupants should stay in the vehicle and let the passenger compartment fill with water before exiting, or kick out the windshield, or keep window breaking tools in the glove compartment. Other wrong-headed recommendations included opening the door to exit, waiting until the vehicle hits the bottom, relying on air pockets in the submerged passenger compartment.

“We really got it boiled down to: you have to get out of the vehicle as quickly as possible and it’s through the side window. If you touch your cell phone, you die,” Giesbrecht said. “You have one minute to survive. There’s no rescue that’s going to get to you within 60 seconds.”

Power windows are frequently the only means of egress. But the length of time that they remain functional varies. Breaking a tempered side widow requires a blunt object or a rescue tool, which most drivers don’t have. Advanced glazing, designed to prevent occupant ejection in crashes in side windows, are nearly impossible to break out from inside. 

For these reasons, automotive design countermeasures can play a critical role. The Griffith and Saflin lawsuit referenced several escape technologies Chrysler could have installed: a waterproof power window switch; a remote power source to provide power to the windows; a power window submersion sensor, that would automatically reverse the windows upon submersion; a manual auxiliary window operation; and a single or multiple point device designed to break glass in the event of power window failure. 

Road design countermeasures include more guardrails, barriers, warning signs and road markings, or routing roadways away from water. Better road hazard markings might have saved Trey Kidwell, a 17-year-old from Centerville, Indiana, who died in a vehicle submersion on June 4, 2007. Kidwell was on his way home, when he mistakenly turned onto a road that ended in Brookville Lake. While two other fatal vehicle submersion events had occurred there – one of which happened a year earlier – the state did not put up hazard lights or warning signs until the Department of Natural Resources responded to a petition circulated by Trey Kidwell’s family and others.  His grandmother and submersion prevention advocate Mary Kay Kidwell, is frustrated by the public’s basic lack of knowledge about the immediate need to escape a vehicle in the water.

“The gap is in not having some kind of comprehensive communication where someone is a recognized expert. Everybody has an opinion. People make little videos. One guy was a bartender,” she says. “The dispatch universe needs to be trained in the difference in handling a water-based accident or a land-based accident.”

Geisbrecht, who in conjunction with the National Drowning Prevention Association meeting in March, will conduct a seminar and vehicle submersion demonstration for emergency response personnel in Southern Florida, says dispatch protocols are about to change. He and his colleague McDonald have re-written emergency response protocols for submersed vehicles to change the focus of 911 operator responses from identifying a caller’s location to advising the occupant on how to escape. The protocol, written under the auspices of the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, is in the midst of the approval process and is expected to released to 3,000 911 centers worldwide in the next round of updates in April.

Says Giesbrecht:

“I would love to get out the point: You have one minute. Don’t touch your cell phone. Seatbelts off. Window out.”