A Manitoba professor has just completed a study examining escape strategies from sinking cars — using real cars and real people.

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Gordon Giesbrecht recommends a four-step system to escape a sinking car: Remove seatbelt, free children, open window, get out. ((CBC))

"Most people are surprised to know that seven to 10 per cent of all drownings in Canada are in vehicles," said University of Manitoba professor Gordon Giesbrecht.

Every year in Canada, about 40 motorists find themselves trapped in sinking vehicles, he said.

"It is a very scary situation — but if you know what to do, it is survivable," added Giesbrecht, known around the world as "Professor Popsicle" for his work studying cold stress physiology and hypothermia.

Giesbrecht just finished a study in which he plunged more than 80 cars into water with people in them to determine the best escape strategies.

When a car lands in a body of water, it sinks below the surface in about 60 seconds, he said.

As a result of his tests, he suggests people follow four steps:

  • Remove seatbelt.
  • Free children.
  • Open window.
  • Get out.

"The first step is to get your seatbelt off, and if there are children in the car, get them unharnessed and get them up with you," he said.

"Open the window — and an electric window will work, even underwater — and as soon as it's open, get your children out, and you get out."

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Some companies sell small car-escape tools that include a centre punch and a blade to cut a seatbelt. ((CBC))

In the chaos of a crash, sometimes a seatbelt gets stuck or a window just won't open.

Giesbrecht recommends motorists — especially those who travel near water or on winter roads — obtain a "centre punch," a tool with a point that can break a window with just a slight push.

Several companies make key-chain-sized tools that include centre punches and small blades for cutting seatbelts. CBC News purchased one in Winnipeg for about $14.

Doors, cellphones won't help

Although it may seem counterintuitive as an escape strategy, Giesbrecht recommends not trying to open the door of a sinking car.

"Most of the time, it will be impossible anyway," he said.

"If you try early on, it is possible to muscle the door open, but then you take a vehicle that would float for maybe 60 seconds, and it's going to sink within five to 10 seconds, because as you open the door, the water comes in, the vehicle sinks faster."

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Gordon Giesbrecht, also known as 'Professor Popsicle,' has conducted numerous studies on the effects of cold on the human body. ((CBC))

If the driver opens the car's door, he or she might get out, but anyone in the back seat will likely drown, Giesbrecht added.

He also advised drivers to never use their cellphones in such situations.

"There's no rescue system in the world that's going to get to you in 60 seconds," he said. "By the time you explain everything about your situation, you've lost your opportunity to get out the window."

Giesbrecht, a world-renowned expert on the effects of cold on the human body, is perhaps best known for his appearance on the David Letterman show in which he was plunged into a vat of ice water for 15 minutes.

The thermophysiologist also completed a 450-kilometre marathon trek across Lake Winnipeg in the winter of 2004.