Florida leads the nation in car-crash drownings

Last modified: Friday, November 21, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. — The last time anyone saw Carline Brumaire Jean alive she was inside her car, waving her arms as it sank into a lake near Universal Orlando in February. Unable to escape her Toyota, she drowned.

Her death also highlights a serious public safety issue: Florida leads the nation by a wide margin in the number of people who drown inside their vehicles each year.

A review of federal crash data from 2008 to 2012 shows 49 people drowned inside vehicles in Florida during that five-year period.

Texas is a distant No. 2 with 18 deaths, followed by Indiana with 14, and Louisiana and Arizona with 10 each.

And a 2011 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggests that those numbers understate the problem.

Its review of crash data and death records from 2004-07 also found that Florida leads the nation but it put the number of drownings much higher: an average of 57 deaths each of those years in Florida and 384 nationwide.

The reason the numbers in the federal study are higher: Its researchers incorporated death certificate records, in addition to crash records, and uncovered hundreds of vehicle drownings that law enforcement agencies had not recorded as such.

Those death certificates are not public record and could not be used in the Orlando Sentinel’s analysis.

What the records consistently show is that, year after year, Florida leads the nation and that the problem is concentrated in South Florida.

According to the national highway agency and its 2011 report, in-vehicle drownings account for 2.1 percent of all Florida motor vehicle fatalities, twice the national average.

“I did not know that Florida was No. 1,” said Joe Santos, safety engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation in Tallahassee.

Why does Florida have so many?

The most likely reason, Santos said, is that Florida has more miles of roads with water frontage than other states.

That includes all of the naturally-occurring water, and also retention ponds that road builders are required to dig near thoroughfares, something mandated by state and local environmental regulations.

Gerald Dworkin, a firefighter/emergency medical technician for 40 years and a water safety expert who trains rescuers and has written extensively about the subject, blamed many of the deaths on South Florida’s roadside canals.

He also questioned whether state and local governments have built enough guardrails and whether they are built to federal safety standards. If not, they need to be torn down, he said.

“More and more, these barriers need to be re-erected to keep people from going off roads and into canals,” said Dworkin, who has worked at fire departments in six states and is now with the department in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Dr. Jan Garavaglia, medical examiner for Orange and Osceola counties, has performed autopsies on 10 to 20 people who have drowned in their vehicles, she said.

“My gut instinct - not as a physician but just as a regular person - is that it must be horrifying. I’m sure they must be fighting to get out.”

Each case she’s handled has been different, she said. Some victims had lost consciousness, she said. Some never managed to free themselves from their seat belts.

In Polk County on Dec. 26, Taylor Jeffrey “T.J.” Bowden, grandson of former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, drowned, along with a friend, when their Mitsubishi veered into a 5-foot-deep creek and flipped over.

A back-seat passenger, Robert Lewis Edwards, 23, of Winter Haven, survived. He apparently passed out for a few hours, came to submerged up to his neck and called for help.

Rescuers warn that people who are in a vehicle that’s crashed into a pond or stream and is taking on water should keep calm but get out as quickly as possible.

Often, survivors have only seconds to unfasten their seat belts and climb out a window before water fills the passenger compartment.

And to make things worse, many vehicles will be upside down. According to the national highway-safety study, 63 percent of in-vehicle drownings happened in cars that had rolled over.

Lance Phy, an accident-reconstruction expert for Rimkus Consulting Group in Texas, was trapped in a car that had skidded into a rain-swollen creek in the mid-1990s in Brazoria County, Texas, he said.

He couldn’t get the door open, and water was rushing in.

He turned his ignition switch back on, and the car’s electrical system still worked, so he lowered his power windows, climbed onto the roof of the car, then waded to safety in waist-deep water, he said.

Dworkin said the best strategy is to “do the best you can to prevent these accidents from happening.”


You’ve been in a crash, and your car was forced off the road and into a retention pond..

You’re not seriously hurt, but your car is starting to sink, nose first.

What should you do?

The most important thing, rescue experts say, is to not panic, but you need to act quickly, unfasten your seat belt, get out of the car and swim to safety.

Seconds really do count. Your passenger compartment may fill with water in less than 60 seconds.

If the pond is 6 feet deep or more, there is little chance a fire-rescue squad will get to you in time to help, so don’t wait.

And don’t try to open your door. Water pressing against it from the outside will almost certainly make that impossible.

Instead, roll down a window. Power windows should still work even though your electrical system is now wet. Just make sure the key is still in the “on” position.

Push yourself up through the opening and swim to safety, experts advise.

If you have children in the vehicle, free them first, push them through the window, and then swim out behind them.

If your power windows don’t work, break a window. There are small, inexpensive tools designed specifically for the job.

One brand is ResQMe. Another is CRKT ExiTool. Others are shaped like a small hammer. They typically have a small, pointed metal tip and a knife blade so you can cut through your seatbelt.

Smash the window with the metal tip.

Some bad news: Some car manufacturers now use laminated window glass that won’t shatter on impact and allow your escape. You should be able to tell by reading the small print on the windows whether yours is one.

Even still, there are other ways you can escape. Climb into the back seat, face the rear of the car, brace your back against the front seat and with your feet and press hard against the back windshield, trying to break the seal around its edge so you can push it away and swim to safety.

If that fails, try to find an air pocket. One often forms near the roof in the back of the car. Once enough water has flooded into the passenger compartment, the water pressure on the doors will equalize and you may be able to open a door and swim out.

-Rene Stutzman


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