Trapped in a Sinking Car

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"His beloved car will be his grave."
Johnson, Transporter 3

Want to show a character struggle for survival in a dangerous Drowning Pit situation that is easy to set up? Look no further, simply have the victim trapped in a car shooting off a cliff or bridge straight into a large body of water below. Often preceded by malfunctioning brakes, blown tires, an incapacitated driver or the car being rammed off by another vehicle.
Bonus point if the car goes into a slow motion fall once in mid-air. Another bonus point if the seatbelts jam on landing.

Favorite trope for villains who want to get rid of a character who knows too much and needs to be silenced in a non-suspicious way. If executed successfully, the victim might end up never being found.

Truth in Television in the sense that plunging a car into water can be very, very dangerous. The pressure of the water against the door could make it physically impossible to open if the passenger does not open the door immediately. Indeed, the pressure of the water against the window may make it impossible to open via conventional means, whether it's a manual crank or electric. There are two ways out of the situation: Soft Glass (which can be invoked by using a tool meant to shatter tempered glass) or waiting for the pressure differential between the inside and outside to stabilize, which won't happen until the cabin is filled to the brim. Watch MythBusters demonstrating this trope in episode Underwater Car and Inverted Underwater Car.

Subtrope of Death Trap. Sometimes averted in fiction when the car turns into an Amphibious Automobile.


Examples

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Film
  • James Bond:
    • Bond had to escape one of these in A View to a Kill. He is able to open the car door once the cabin is flooded with water. Bond then realizes that he cannot surface immediately because the baddies are waiting ashore, so he opens the wheel valve and inhales the out-rushing air.
    • Invoked in Licence to Kill. While in custody, the villain offers $2 million to anyone willing to help him escape. Naturally, some baddies jump at the call. As the villain he is being transported across a bridge, the armoured truck is forced into the water where scuba divers rescue him from the back of the truck.
  • In Beetlejuice, the Maitlands accidentally drive off a bridge and drown in the beginning of the film; the rest is about their ghosts haunting the new residents of their house.
  • Downplayed in Big Fish. Will Bloom's car gets caught in a rain so intense that it is submerged by the ensuing flood. However, the cabin appears sealed off and Will gets to enjoy the underwater world.
  • In The Bourne Supremacy, Bourne's car goes careening off a pier due to the assassin that is trying to kill them. He escapes, but his girlfriend got fatally shot in the process.
  • Luisa Rey's beetle in Cloud Atlas is being pushed off a bridge to prevent her from exposing industry secrets. She manages to escape from the sinking vehicle in an Offscreen Moment of Awesome.
  • Double Jeopardy: Libby is tied to a car in handcuffs; as she tries to escape the car, she drives into the lake, sinking rapidly.
  • In The Game, Michael Douglas's car is plunged off a pier as part of the super-scary "game" to make his life more exciting.
  • Invoked in Inception, when the team's van is driven off a bridge to make them wake up from a deeper dream state. Though everyone is equipped with oxygen devices, Cobb and Saito had to be Left for Dead.
  • Del Spooner has a mistrust of robots in I, Robot because he ended up in a car accident which caused his car to be fused (thanks to the speed of cars at the time) to one with a little girl inside (her parents apparently died instantly) and end up in the water. A passing robot (which automatically intervened thanks to the first law) could only save one of them and rescued Spooner (damaging his arm in the process), who had a slightly higher chance of survival, despite his pleas to save the girl (since the first law overrode the second law). This situation is the root of his hatred towards robots - even though prioritizing treatment for people in accidents is very much a real thing, called Triage, Spooner felt that a human rescuer would try to save a child over an adult no matter how futile the attempt would be.
  • In Unknown (2011), due to a freak accident in Berlin traffic, the hero's taxi goes off a bridge and into the river Spree. He hits his head on the window and goes unconscious as the car sinks deeper and deeper into the water. Gladly, his taxi driver is a Bad Ass Bystander and manages to free herself and then pull Martin out through the cab's rear window.
  • In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Harry tries to free a girl from the trunk of a sinking car. His desperate attempt to Shoot Out the Lock of the trunk results in giving the girl a headshot. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero.
  • In Man of Steel, a young Clark Kent saves a bus of his classmates from meeting a watery fate despite the wishes of his adopted father to remain incognito.
  • Raising Cain: Cain watches his victim wake up and then start to sink into the river in a locked car.
  • Superman offers an unusual and disturbing case of Car Sinking In Dirt. Lois Lane is off somewhere in the desert of the American Southwest when an earthquake fault opens up and swallows her car. She is then buried under an avalanche of dirt.
  • In The Thieves, the police van drives into the harbour when the thieves attempt to escape. Everyone manages to get out when it hits the water, except for Pepsee, who ends up handcuffed to the inside of the van and is trapped in the sinking van.
  • In Transporter 3, the hero drives his car off a bridge and into a river in order to evade the bullets coming at him. He manages to escape the sinking car by smashing a window.
  • In Trick 'r Treat, the "Halloween Schoolbus Massacre" is about a group of disturbed kids who were murdered by their bus driver via driving their schoolbus into a river.
  • The heroine in Underworld (2003) passes out at the wheel from a loss of blood, sinking into the river together with Michael.
  • Small scene in War of the Worlds. The ship carrying Ray (Tom Cruise) and his family capsizes with all of the survivors going into the water, some trapped in cars.
  • In Strange Brew, the McKenzie brothers' van is sabotaged and they careen off a pier. When police scuba divers later attempt a recovery, they find the van's inhabitants inside 'drinking' air from all the empty beer bottles they have.
  • In Big Hero 6, Wasabi's car ends up going off a pier after fleeing from Yokai. Fortunately, the damage the car has sustained during the chase allows for an easy exit, and Baymax is able to discard the armor Hiro made for him and act as a flotation device.
  • At the climax of Night Moves, Joey Ziegler dies when his plane sinks into the Atlantic.

Live-Action TV
  • Alias: In the Back Story, Sidney's mother died when she drowned in her car. It was discovered after she died that she was a KGB operative. During one episode, Sidney has to temporarily fake her death, and she does so by driving her car off a pier, then surviving by breathing the air in the tires. This clues her into the fact that her mother might not have drowned as everyone thought.
  • Dexter. In S8xE4, Dexter and Debra crash into the river as Dexter is hit unconscious.
  • Emergency! had a couple. Roy and John have to use the Jaws of Life underwater in "Seance" and another has a teenage boy trapped in his submerged car.
  • MythBusters Episodes 72: Underwater Car & 155: Inverted Underwater Car both experimented with this trope.
  • This kicks off the plot in the first episode of Smallville. Lex Luthor isn't watching as he's driving and runs Clark over, shooting off a bridge and into the lake. Clark rips the roof off of Lex's car to rescue him. Much of the rest of the series has a subplot of Lex trying to figure out how Clark did that.
  • The X-Files episode "Nothing Important Happened Today". A female Super Soldier lures a man into taking her home and forces his car over the edge of a bridge and into the water. She then uses her immunity to death to hold him underwater until he drowns.
  • An episode of Top Gear demonstrates this trope, with Richard Hammond in the role of the unfortunate driver.
  • Happens on ER, after two doctors are shot at in a road rage incident. Their car goes off the bridge into the river with them and their friend trapped inside. Luckily, the windows are rolled up, so they're able to call for help before the car sinks, as well as have enough time for the rescue squad to get there before it fills with water.
  • Several times on Third Watch, ending tragically once—they get the two people in the car out safely, but the man who was locked in the trunk drowns—they'd been taken prisoner by a carjacker—and triumphantly the second time, this time with a sinking helicopter.
  • Mac on CSI: NY in the season 5 pilot. He was kidnapped by a hostage taker and the guy abandoned Mac and the car in the river. Naturally, Mac escapes.
  • On As the World Turns, after kidnapping and raping Jack, his crazy ex-wife Julia decided to cap things off by leaving him tied up in his car and pushing it into a lake.
  • An early episode of Baywatch had lovebirds Eddie and Shauni trapped in an armored truck that had plunged off the pier.
  • Vera: In "Silent Voices", the murderer attempts to dispose of his final victim by placing her in a car and rolling it off a cliff into a reservoir. Joe has to dive in to save her.
  • Rizzoli & Isles: In "Dirty Little Secret", Jane and Maura are trapped in a wrecked car that is slowly being submerged as the water rises around them.
  • NCIS: Happens to Gibbs and the now-grown friend of his late daughter in the episode "Requiem".

Music
  • In Eminem's "Stan", Stan purposely drives his car off a bridge into a body of water, drowning himself and his pregnant girlfriend (who he has locked in the trunk).

Newspaper Comics
  • Dick Tracy:
    • The Brow killed the treacherous Summer sisters by forcing their cab off a bridge into the river. They were trapped inside and drowned.
    • A 2014 story ends with criminal siblings Silver and Sprocket Nitrate locked inside a car at the bottom of a lake — where Sprocket had deliberately driven them after her brother struck her. The story cuts away before they actually drown, but they aren't reported as living either.

Video Games
  • In Heavy Rain, a bad guy attempts to drown Scott Shelby and Lauren Winters, who have come too close to discovering his crimes, in their car. You play as Scott and must find a way to escape before the time runs out — if you are fast enough, you can even save the unconscious Lauren.
  • Silent Hill:

Web Comics

Western Animation
  • In the Family Guy episode, "The Courtship of Stewie's Father", Peter and Stewie do this to Lois as a prank. Fortunately, Lois survives, and when she gets back home, she is not happy with them at all.
    • In another episode it happens to a full school bus after a banner is let loose by Peter & Mort. Every passenger on the bus is not as lucky as Lois because there are no survivors.
  • South Park: In "Butters' Very Own Episode", Butters' mom tries to drown him by locking him in the car and sending it into the river, blaming it on "some Puerto Rican guy."
  • Happens towards the end of the Defenders of the Earth episode "100 Proof Highway" when alcoholic guest character Eric loses control of his car and crashes it into a lake - with himself and Jedda trapped inside. Luckily, Rick and LJ rescue them and the experience convinces Eric that he needs to quit drinking.

Real Life
  • The infamous Chappaquiddick episode in which U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and Kennedy family aide Mary Jo Kopechne went plunging off a bridge leading away from Chappaquiddick Island. Kennedy escaped the car and survived; Kopechne drowned.
  • NBC News anchor Jessica Savitch was killed along with her boyfriend when he, driving away from a restaurant in a heavy rain storm, took a wrong turn and instead of driving away on the main road, took an access road that led to a drainage canal.
  • The "Emergency Medical Dispatch" protocols designed by the company Priority Dispatch, which are used by a large number of emergency dispatch centers worldwide, introduced a specific protocol to address callers reporting sinking vehicles after a number of incidents transpired.
  • This is realized to have happened in the plethora of Finally Found the Body cases that involve a missing person's car being found submerged in a body of water, with the person's remains still in it.


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