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Survival Guide: 7 Ways to Save Your Own Life

Would you know what to do when faced with a crisis? Here are strategies that could help you come out smiling (or, at the very least, breathing)

En español l With age comes wisdom, but even those of us who've "seen it all" can get blindsided by the unexpected. Of course, no one wants bad things to happen. But when they do — coming fast, hard and without prejudice — what you know and how you respond will determine just how badly a bad thing will turn out.

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"Surprise is our Achilles' heel," says Guy H. Haskell, a 30-year EMS veteran and executive director of Emergency Medical and Safety Services Consultants in Bloomington, Indiana. "Extreme situations always sound crazy — until you're in one. That's when panic sets in." And being older may not give you a leg up. One University of Iowa study found, for example, that only one in four people 50 and up has an emergency plan in place for natural disasters.

No worries here, though. We've cooked up seven nasty scenarios and consulted with the experts to give you the tools you need to be your own first responder. As the old saying goes, "Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it."

Here's hoping you never need anything you're about to read.

save your life car crash bridge water drowning submerged car

A car escape tool could be your lifesaver if your car is sinking in water. — Brent Humphreys

1. Your car is sinking in a large body of water 

Yes, people do accidentally drive off bridges — and yes, flash floods do happen in a flash (note Colorado in September 2013). This is what to do.

Work before you sink. "As a car sinks, outside pressure against the windows and doors will only build," says Haskell. If you submerge, it will be almost impossible to open the doors. Electric windows may or may not work because of short circuits. So try to open a door or window before the car is covered. Commonsense point: This will make a lot of water enter the car. Move fast to get out.

In a flash flood, use your car. Waters in flash floods are generally fast-moving and may not be as deep as, say, a lake. If water slams your car enough that you start moving, stay in the car, Haskell says: "Your car is now your boat. It's your protection from strong currents, mud, debris and anything you might slam into along the way." In shallower currents, odds are your car will bump against something that will stop it. That's your chance to try to climb onto the roof to escape or to signal for help. Use the horn, swing a shirt — do anything to attract attention.

Be prepared. Buy a car escape tool that is part hammer (to shatter the window) and part blade (to slice a jammed seat belt). Haskell recommends a key-chain version, so that it's easily accessible. "If it's hanging from the ignition, it's right there," he says. You can find various brands at hardware stores and online retailers for about $10.

Survival Tip: A car escape tool (part blade, part hammer) can cut a jammed seat belt.

Next page: What to do if you meet a large animal in a foul mood. »

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