Your Car’s On Fire—Now What?

Your Car’s On Fire—Now What?

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When somebody drives a car off a 100-foot cliff, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that everybody inside is doomed. But when that very thing happened this past Wednesday, in Northern Arizona, all three passengers survived with no life threatening injuries.

The fall was probably terrifying, but it only got worse for the 16 year old driver. Her two passengers managed to escape, but she was trapped inside the car, which was upside down, for more than four hours before help arrived.

If you found yourself in that situation—trapped inside a car that somehow ended up on its back—what would you do? What’s the right call to increase your odds of walking (or at least limping) away? Here’s your guide to that and other worst-case car accidents.

Upside Down Auto

Your car went off the road and flipped. You’re upside down, but conscious and seemingly unharmed. What next?

The first mistake is taking off your seatbelt too quickly. “Brace yourself for the fall,” says Hubie Kerns, co-founder of the Driver’s Inc stunt-driving school and a member of the Stuntman’s Association.  “Press your right arm or elbow against the ceiling, which is easier than it sounds because you’ll probably be freaking out.”

Whatever you do, don’t stay hanging upside down. “I knew one stunt guy who got a concussion and he was knocked out during a flip and they left him hanging upside down for like 20 minutes before they pulled him out,” Kerns says. “Well, all the blood rushed to his head, which is terrible for a concussion. He stayed unconscious for a month.”

Once you’re safely on the ground, try opening the doors. If they’re jammed shut and the windows won’t open, it’s time to find your phone and call 911. If that’s not possible, sit tight and wait.

Car On Fire

If there’s smoke coming from under your hood, pull over immediately, turn off the engine and get out. Resist any instinct to open the hood. “If it’s a fire and not just smoke, adding oxygen will only intensify it,” says Lauren Fix, author of Driving Ambitions: A Complete Guide to Amateur Auto Racing.

Also, there’s not much you can do to fix the situation. “If your wires are smoking under the hood, your car is already toast,” says Rick Seaman of the Rick Seaman Stunt Driving School, who’s done stunts in The Amazing Spider-Man, Catch Me If You Can, and Charlie’s Angels.

Your best course of action is get as far away as you can. “It’s rare, but the gas tank could explode,” he says. “If you left your wallet in the front seat, too bad.”

On a Collision Course With a Confused Driver

You’re driving fast down a two-land highway. In the distance, you see another car heading towards you, and it’s drifting into your lane. Your first impulse may be to swerve to avoid a collision. Ignore this impulse.

“Swerving is not good at all,” says Kerns, who’s done stunts for movies like The Long Goodbye, The Buccaneer, and Spartacus. If you’re not 100% certain what’s directly next to your car, “you may end up causing an even bigger wreck.”

Or worse, you could spin out of control. “That’s why we do sudden swerves in the movies, for the big spin,” he says.

He recommends a far less dramatic reaction. “Slide over to the edge of your lane and slowly put on the brake,” he says.

Submerged in Water

If your car has ended up in a body of water and your windows aren’t already open, roll them down before the electricity gives out. If the power’s gone and the windows won’t budge, hopefully you remembered to plan ahead.

“You need a gadget called an automatic punch, available in any hardware store,” says Seaman, who’s performed driving stunts for stars like Vin Diesel, Burt Reynolds and Bruce Willis. They come in a variety of sizes, but he suggests 3/8th-of-an-inch. “It’s the size of a pen, so you can just keep it in your glove compartment,” he says.

When your car goes under, just hold the spring-loaded mechanism against the window and wait for a click. “With moderate arm strength, the window will just explode,” Seaman says. Then start swimming.