Divers demonstrate how to escape from a sinking car.(Courtesy Indiana State Police)

Late on the evening of June 4, 2007, Mary Kay Kidwell’s 17-year-old grandson drove his 1990 Toyota Camry off a back road and into an Indiana reservoir. Trey Kidwell had taken a wrong turn while returning to his Centerville, Ind., home from a visit to a friend in a nearby town. He didn’t know that the road ended at Brookville Lake.

As the Camry was sinking in 10 to 15 feet of water, Trey’s passenger, Robert Sharp, 16, managed to save himself by forcing the door open enough to squeeze his way out. Trey broke the driver-side door handle and a backseat door handle while trying to escape, but he couldn’t make it out of the car. Divers found him, still inside the Camry, about two hours later.

The terrible news turned Mary Kay Kidwell into an unlikely activist, determined to make something positive out of Trey’s death by preventing the scores of similar drownings that occur in the U.S. every year.

“I’m just me, just ‘Grandma,’” said Kidwell, 70. “I don’t have any clout, I’m not a politician. I have nothing to sell. I just want to save lives.”

Kidwell has lobbied regulators for a window-breaking device to be installed in all vehicles. Such products as ResQMe, a spring-loaded hammer that goes on a car key chain, already are available.

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But in her quest to save people from drowning in submerged vehicles, Kidwell has run into a competing, long-cherished safety goal: protecting people from being thrown out of their windows during rollover accidents.

Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a new safety standard to prevent the partial ejection of vehicle occupants in crashes, particularly rollovers. The agency expects auto manufacturers to meet the requirements, in part, by using laminated glass, or “advanced glazing,” in side windows. The standard will be phased in starting in September 2013.

Kidwell says advanced glazing will turn every vehicle into a “tomb,” with people being trapped since no device, including ResQMe, can break that kind of glass. She also believes that NHTSA, at least until recently, deliberately understated immersion deaths to avoid undermining the push for advanced glazing. There is as yet no technology that would reconcile Kidwell’s goals with those of the safety activists promoting glazing. “Every day I think about my grandson and the … others who’ve perished since his death, and I wonder why these victims’ lives are not as valued as those ejected from vehicles,” Kidwell, expressing her anguish, wrote NHTSA in October 2010.

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Kidwell has spent most of her life in the small towns of southeast Indiana. Her current home in Richmond is only about 20 miles north of Brookville Lake. After raising five children, she went back to school in 1992, earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Earlham College. She then worked 12 years for the fundraising departments of two colleges as a donor researcher, retiring in 2006 so she could spend more time with her family.

Mary Kay Kidwell

Kidwell’s research skills have helped her investigate vehicle immersion. “I just get nosy,” she said with a laugh. Among other things, she has combed news stories to compile her own database of drowning accidents. She charts them on spreadsheets, state by state, categorized by body of water, driver’s age, cause of accident and number of deaths. Of a Sept. 18, 2010 plunge into a Tracy, Calif., irrigation canal that killed four teenagers, she noted clinically, “They could not get out of the car and died before emergency crews could reach them.”

A vehicle immersion goes through three stages — floating, sinking and submerged, when the vehicle is completely below the surface of the water. Kidwell has also studied 54 immersion accidents in which at least one occupant survived. The majority of the survivors, she found, escaped through a window during the floating phase. One survival theory advises people to let the passenger compartment fill with water so the water pressure inside the vehicle is the same as the pressure outside, making it easier to open the doors. But Kidwell and other researchers say the vehicle would be well below the water when that happens. “The only guaranteed exit from a submerged vehicle is if you have a window-breaking tool in your hand,” said Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba.

In a study published last year by Giesbrecht, test vehicles floated for up to 63 seconds if the passenger compartment was intact, before water reached the bottom of the side window. That is enough time for even complicated escapes “as long as subjects were prepared for what to do,” the study concluded. Kidwell believes her grandson — and many others — would have survived vehicle immersions if they’d had a glass-breaking tool and been taught to escape through a side window. “People just don’t know how to get out of the car,” she said.

Over the years NHTSA has minimized the problem, contending that nearly all deaths in submerged vehicles result from the force of crashes occurring before the car or truck goes into the water. The agency produced a report last year called “Death and Injuries in Accidents Involving Water Submersion of Motor Vehicles.” A more apt title would be “The Incredible Shrinking Number.” In the “real world,” it said, “most vehicles experience multiple impacts and rollover prior to submersion” and occupants of those vehicles “are at significant risk of being seriously or fatally injured prior to the submersion event.” Among the 15 percent of submersion cases that did not involve a collision or rollover, the report contended, only 51 occupants died due to drowning between 1995 and 2004, an annual average of five.

NHTSA cited a fatal 2006 accident in which the driver of a Ford Taurus lost control of the vehicle, hit a tree and rolled over before finally coming to rest upside down in a creek. The report was also skeptical about the effectiveness of escape devices. “The availability of egress tools to such occupants who are impaired or severely injured would not have helped,” it said.

As recently as late June, NHTSA continued to hew to that position.

The agency declined repeated requests to make an official available for an interview for this article. But, in a prepared statement provided to FairWarning on June 30 by spokeswoman Ellen Martin, NHTSA said its data “show that 3 to 5 people are killed annually in crashes involving vehicle immersion.”

Kidwell said she was “really shocked” when she read the NHTSA report. Statistics drive regulatory policy and, with the statistics in that report, she feared that NHTSA had effectively driven vehicle immersion into a dead end. “They are attempting to skew the numbers so they don’t have to deal with it,” she argued.

Giesbrecht, who has participated in his own research by going underwater in vehicles himself, called the report “scandalous” and the “most radical misuse of statistics I’ve ever seen.” In particular, he faulted NHTSA for assuming that “any accident that puts you in the water killed you before you got there … Every crash or rollover is assumed to be the cause of death. Every crash I’ve seen, the person was alive when [the vehicle] hit the water.”

NHTSA kept citing three to five deaths a year even after one of its statisticians, Rory Austin, conducted an analysis that dismantled the estimate. After repeated questioning by FairWarning over several months, however, the agency changed its tune. In an Aug. 10 email, NHTSA called Austin’s analysis its “first official report on the topic of drowning deaths” and said that “any prior mention of the 3 to 5 number was premature.” The bottom line: NHTSA explicitly said drowning was a factor in an average of 384 deaths annually, and it endorsed calculations by Austin suggesting that drowning was the “most harmful event” in nearly half, 182, of those deaths.

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NHTSA’s new posture, however, may have come too late to aid Kidwell’s cause. In January, the agency issued the final version of its anti-ejection safety standard. The document said auto manufacturers could meet the new safety standard by changing the design of side airbags – but also by possibly supplementing them with advanced glazing. “With only side airbags, you can still go outside the [protective] envelope,” explained Sean Kane, an auto safety expert in Rehoboth, Mass. “The combination of the two is going to give you the protection you want.”


    Escape Tips

Some tips for escaping from a sinking vehicle recommended by Prof. Gordon Giesbrecht and other experts:

1. Brace yourself for impact as soon as you know you’re going into the water. Do this by placing both hands on the steering wheel to prepare for possibility the airbag will inflate.

For more tips, go here.

The new standard is designed to address what NHTSA calls one of its “highest safety priorities.” According to its data, rollover fatalities average more than 10,000 a year. An average of 47 percent of vehicle occupants killed in rollovers were completely ejected from their vehicle, most of them through side windows. “I would not get a car without advanced glazing,” Kane insisted.

NHTSA estimates that the new standard will save 373 lives and prevent 476 serious injuries per year. But to Kidwell, it could also cost the lives of people in submerging vehicles. In her October 2010 letter to NHTSA, Kidwell warned, “Breaking a side window now is difficult enough with a tool or punch; strengthened glass will transform every vehicle into a tomb.”

Tools such as ResQMe, which retails for about $12, and LifeHammer ($20) are designed to break standard vehicle glass. In a test of ResQMe, divers with a marine safety program in Florida used the device to “literally disintegrate” a window from inside a flooded automobile and break two overlapping windows in a submerged school bus. Another device, Escape Tip, is a window-breaking center punch that is added to the end of seat belt latchplates. Laurent Colasse, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based distributor of both ResQMe and LifeHammer, says advanced glazing in side windows would put him out of business. “There’s nothing that can break laminated glass,” he says.

Kidwell has pushed NHTSA to view passenger ejection and drowning as intertwined safety issues. “I am sure your goal is the same as mine: saving lives,” she wrote. “But we must not sacrifice one group of people for another. Why is entrapment not as important as ejection?” Giesbrecht says many of those killed or injured in rollovers were not wearing seatbelts. That’s what makes the new ejection mitigation standard worse, he complains. “You are protecting people who aren’t wearing seatbelts in rollover at the risk of killing anyone who’s in a vehicle that goes in the water.”

Kane, though, believes regulators have to tread very carefully. Vehicle immersion is “a very legitimate concern,” he said, but he fears that efforts to save people from drowning in cars will compromise efforts to save them from being ejected from cars.

Technology may eventually provide a way out of the dilemma. Giesbrecht says researchers are looking into sensors that would trigger power windows to open automatically by detecting water intrusion. Another possibility is waterproofing the electronic circuitry that controls power windows. But Kane says “we’re not even close” to a technological solution. “I think there is a long battle ahead of us.”

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The accidents keep happening. In a particularly bizarre case, three young women escaped a sinking SUV in June after the driver followed the rental car’s GPS directions down a boat ramp in Bellevue, Wash. The road was dark, and the vehicle did not hit anything before going into the water.

Mary Kay Kidwell, meanwhile, hasn’t lost any of her determination to make sure her grandson did not die in vain. “NHTSA’s suggestion of stronger side windows will doom the 300/yr victims of vehicle immersions … to a horrible death,” she wrote Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in a recent e-mail. Kidwell is now hoping that, to follow up on Austin’s report, NHTSA will focus on how immersion survivors get out alive. “Nobody is studying why they survived.” The survivor stories, she still believes, could help persuade NHTSA to make a policy of requiring an escape tool in every vehicle and immersion escape training for anyone who occupies a vehicle. “One preventable death is one too many,” she said.