Driving During a Flood


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Did you know that in the USA, historically 50% or more of the people killed by floods and flooding were in a vehicle of some kind? Despite some success for the TADD “Turn Around, don’t Drown” campaign in the USA, the 2012 figures for vehicle deaths during floods are still quite shocking, with driving still accounting for 39% of deaths.

Image courtesy of National Weather Service.
2012 Flood Fatalitiies by Activity – courtesy of the National Weather Service

Of course, a car will seem like the obvious way to try to quickly escape an area threatened by flooding. Therefore it stands to reason that many people caught up in floods are in their cars, trying to get away. But it also makes us beg the question: does being in a car make us more vulnerable to the rages of flood waters?

The problems with attempting to use a car during a flood may seem obvious from our safe perspective: if the water is too deep, then surely the car is going to be vulnerable. But how deep is too deep? And during the panicked moments of when a flood first hits, how easy is it to judge correctly?

car during a flood
Car during a flood in Calgary, Canada, 2006.

If you’re thinking of driving through a flood zone it’s important to bear in mind that it takes just a foot or so of water to make a car float – even less for a smaller car. And the fact is that it is impossible to judge the true depth of the flood water. What might seem to be just a few inches, may hide deeper problems underneath, where the road surface has been washed away or holes have been created by the moving water. It is quite likely that you may drive into water thinking it is shallow enough for the car, only to find out parts of the water were much deeper and enough to make the vehicle float. In those circumstances, if the flood water is fast flowing, it can lead to all sorts of problems since the driver has no control and the vehicle can be tossed around on the tidal flow. And remember, a flood tide can be surprisingly strong, even if it looks fairly passive. For example, water moving at around 7 or 8 miles per hour could well tip a vehicle over.

Many experts recommend avoiding the use of cars during a flood. But from my perspective, this might be easy for experts to say. The temptation for me would be that, if the flood is about to hit, I would want to pack my family up in the car and drive them away from the flood zone as quickly as possible. And it seems I’m not the only one. During the flood threats of 1997 in our area of Germany, local residence got into the habit of parking their cars in the most convenient place for a fast getaway, facing in the direction that would lead them away from the flood zone the quickest.

Would you use your car to get away from a flood threat or flooded area? Or have you any experience of doing so?

To get an idea of the power of flood water and how a car or vehicle can react when lifted by high, rapid flowing water, see the video clip below.

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