Understanding user perception of surviving vehicle submersion accidents

“Imagine being in your car when it goes off a bridge into the water below. How do you escape?”*

This was the question I asked nearly 1000 survey respondents and focus group participants in product liability research work conducted for a leading law firm. Our objective was clear: understand what user perception was and then work to understand where user perception of liability fell for managing and providing survivability information.

The work began with a web-based survey probing at these questions. We received 750 responses. I then led a series of focus group sessions to better probe and understand the nuances of what we had learned from the survey results. We had video footage from the Michigan State Police that showed what happened to cars when they went into the water during controlled experiment conditions. Generally, the videos showed the cars remaining afloat for 3-7 minutes before sinking, then overturning onto their roofs.

We shared this with focus group participants and then led them in a discussion of tactics to survive. At that point, the predominant philosophy on how to survive such accidents was to remain in the car until it reached the bottom of the body of water while depending on an air pocket believed to exist inside the cabin, then open the door once the pressure equalized inside and outside the car. It was eye opening to see the amount of cognitive dissonance exhibited by the participants: they refused to acknowledge what they had witnessed in the videos and clung fast to their beliefs despite the fact that survivability decreased drastically with the conventional wisdom approach.

In the end, there was no clear opinion on the liability elements. This work did, however, clearly underscore the psychological tendencies to react to familiar scripts in times of significant, nearly paralyzing stress.

*The ideal answer to this question is to roll down your windows and undo your safety belt as soon as you realize you are in the water, then exit through the windows and swim away from the car to safety. Cars will float long enough to allow you to do this, and the electrical systems will work long enough even once submerged to allow you to do this.

car on a bridge