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What to do if your car is trapped in a flash flood

Megan MacDonald
December 31, 2016

Suzuki_S_Flash_Flood (1).jpg

Flash floods are unpredictable, fast and deadly - but there are ways to stay safe if you find you and your car in the way.

The long-awaited rains sweeping across South Africa have led to dangerous flash floods over sun-baked ground and blocked drainage systems. Here’s what to do if your car is trapped in a flash flood - most importantly, remember not to panic!

First of all, it’s best to avoid the water on the road all together, if you can. It can be deceptively deep, or move much quicker than it looks from the surface. Your car is also more vulnerable than you think. Says Tshwane Emergency Services, “Be very aware of your car's limitations. If you drive through water that is 15 cm deep or more, your car could lose control and stall. Furthermore, 30 cm of water is enough to float most cars, and 60 cm of rushing water can indeed carry away cars, SUVs and pick-ups.”

Avoid driving over bodies of water on the road at all - back up or take a different route if you see a flooded road or bridge ahead.


Picture from EWN

If, however, you find yourself surrounded by water, ENCA gives these tips:

  • Don't walk into moving water unless it is extremely shallow. Just 16cm of moving water can knock you off your feet.
  • If your vehicle is surrounded by shallow water and you are caught in a traffic jam because of deeper conditions ahead, abandon the vehicle and move immediately to higher ground. Do not stay in a car that may get flooded.
  • If you are stranded on an object above the floodwater, such as a tree or a building, stay put and wait for rescue. Do not enter the floodwater.

Don’t panic if your car is surrounded or covered by water.

  • Undo your seat belt and unbuckle the kids, starting from the oldest to the youngest.
  • Though it seems counter-intuitive, open your windows as soon as you hit the water, and break them if you need to.
  • Says Popular Mechanics, “You can escape from your vehicle through the window or, if that's not possible, wait until the water pressure is equal on both sides of your door so it will open.”



  • When the water is at chest level, take a deep breath and exit the car. Swim to the surface as quickly as you can. Says ENCA, “If you don’t know which way to swim, look for light and swim toward it or follow any bubbles you see as they will be going up.”
  • If you’re swept away by fast-moving water, point your feet downstream so they hit any obstacles instead of your head. Never try to go under obstacles, always go over.

Is your car worth salvaging?  

If you’ve made it through a flash flood and have a dirty car to deal with, Popular Mechanics share this advice on checking the status of your car.

  • Don’t wait to clean it - rust will set in almost immediately.
  • Disconnect the battery first of all! Or else you might find parts of your car or you getting an unpleasant shock.
  • “Next, begin assessing just how deep the water got. Frankly, if the waterline is as high as the dashboard, you will probably be better off talking the adjuster into totaling the car and getting another,” says Popular Mechanics, “Double that for salt water. The mechanical systems and the interior can be dried out or cleaned with a lot of labor, but the electrical systems on modern cars are extremely complex. These systems rely on a lot of low-voltage signals from sensors in the engine management system and ABS. These low-voltage signals are extremely sensitive to corrosion on connectors, and problems can crop up for years.”
  • Look for a high water mark. This is easy if the water was dirty, but with clean water this is very tricky. Look for water inside the doors and taillights, and dampness inside.
  • Check the dipsticks of the engine and transmission for water droplets. If there are any, change the water and filter before you start the engine. If the water was dirty, remove the oil pan from the engine and wash out the dirt. Change it all again after a few hundred kilometers too.


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For more tips on driving in the rain follow our 14 easy to follow tips on driving safely in the rain.

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This guide will help you troubleshoot some common car problems, so that you know whether or not you need to contact a mechanic. It also covers a variety of driver safety tips to keep you and your loved ones safe on the road.

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