According to a recent study, 82% of all action movies, to include 94% of all natural disaster movies, include a scene depicting a collapsing bridge. (These statistics are made up.)
These action scenes are both thrilling and horrifying, and show a variety of actions that include jumping from vehicles, high-speed driving, and underwater vehicle egress. However, they do not adequately prepare the audience for such an occurrence, so this article will overview some practical tips for surviving a collapsing bridge in real life.
Why bridges collapse?
It is estimated that approximately 130 bridges collapse in the United States per year. These structural failures have a variety of causes: cumulative structural fatigue, exceeding the maximum weight, earthquakes, excessive current or flooding, and strong winds. Most of these causes also include warning signs of impending structure failure: rippling, bending, and swaying are all indications that the bridge’s inherent flexibility is being tested.
Tips for surviving a collapsing bridge
As with most emergency situations, the overall best defense is simple avoidance. If you must cross a bridge during an intense storm or in the early stages of earthquake activity, know that you are doing so at increased risk. If the unthinkable happens, and you are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, then the material below serves as a guide to give you the best chance of survival.
We will consider three cases: the vehicle remains on the bridge, the vehicle falls off the bridge onto land, and the vehicle falls off the bridge into water.
Vehicle remains on the bridge
- A structural failure will probably turn a horizontal driving surface into something other than horizontal. Vehicles have some tolerance for increasing slopes, but they eventually hit a limit and the tires break loose from the concrete. The biggest danger here is blunt force trauma, akin to a vehicle collision. Your vehicle has inherent safety features to protect the occupants, and you are probably better off riding it out inside the vehicle than attempting to do it on foot. After all, if your tires can’t get a grip, will your shoes do any better? Wait for all violent motion to stop, take a moment to collect yourself and observe your surroundings, and determine an egress path. Should you find your vehicle precariously perched at the ledge, beware of any changes in the vehicle’s center of gravity that might tip it the wrong way. If it appears stable, the best thing to do might be waiting for help. If you are able to escape the vehicle, try to be a good citizen and help others in the same situation.
If Vehicle falls onto land
- Once again, blunt force trauma and rapid accelerations are caused by sudden impacts with the ground and subsequent rolling. Let the vehicle’s safety features (seatbelts, airbags, roll bars) do their job to protect the occupants until all violent motion ceases. Once the vehicle comes to rest, give yourself a moment to come to your senses and egress as before.
Vehicle falls into water
- This is a more complicated scenario. You are likely to be stunned from the fall and rapid impact with the water, so the first step is to come to your senses and assess the situation. If the windows are up, your passenger compartment is an air pocket, and will likely right the vehicle topside-up after a few moments. Unlock the doors, and keep windows up. Now, you have some decisions to make.
- If the vehicle is floating stable, and the waterline is below a window, you might be able to roll down/break a window and escape before the vehicle submerges. Do this cautiously, as the vehicle will tend to roll toward the direction that occupants are moving (meaning that the open window may fall below the waterline, and water spills into the cabin and displaces the air keeping it afloat). If you are floating stable with no signs of water infiltration, waiting for emergency assistance might be your safest bet.
- Once the vehicle becomes partially submerged, with signs of water infiltration, then sinking is inevitable. As the natural buoyancy diminishes, the vehicle will rotate as it slowly sinks. In most vehicles, the engine is in the front while empty cargo space is in the rear, so these vehicles are likely to rotate front-down. In this case, the rear of the vehicle may provide the longest usable air pocket. Have all occupants unfasted seatbelts and prepare to exit from a rear door or window. Unlock all doors if you haven’t already done so. As the air pocket is about to disappear, take a final deep breath, and crack the door/window open to allow water to fill the cabin. There will be a strong current flowing into the vehicle; don’t try to out-swim it. Once pressure is stabilized, the door should open (with some resistance) to allow a clear egress path. If the door cannot open, then try a window—even power windows should have a few minutes of usable power when submerged. Help each other out of the vehicle, attempt to find “up”, and let your body’s buoyancy help you get there.
- If your window can’t roll down, breaking glass might be more difficult than you think. Windows are easier than windshields. First, try using your feet to break it out of its housing. Next, try using a sharp object, such as a purpose-made hammer, multitool, or even seat belt, to create a crack, and then kick against this crack. Try to open the hole as wide as possible, and expect a few lacerations on the way through.
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So there’s your quick guide to being a fallen bridge survivor. Remember, it is key to maintain your senses and think as clearly as you can. When it comes to survival, panic is not an option.
Now, let’s go watch some action movies to see how they did.