The little lifesaver

HERE is the tool that emergency services believe could save your life. They suggest you use it if your car crashes into the deadly Forty Foot drain between Ramsey and Chatteris, which claimed five lives in six weeks last winter. Cambridgeshire County Cou

HERE is the tool that emergency services believe could save your life.

They suggest you use it if your car crashes into the deadly Forty Foot drain between Ramsey and Chatteris, which claimed five lives in six weeks last winter.

Cambridgeshire County Council is set to buy hundreds of "life hammers" to give away free at fire stations for the motorists who use waterside roads each day.

Road safety officer Debbie Maith said: "There are around 74km of highways in our county alongside rivers and drains.

"While these waterways unquestionably add to the beauty of the area, they have also claimed the lives of drivers and passengers - often due to driver error.

"Although we are giving advice on how to escape from a sinking vehicle, we want to stress that avoiding ending up in this situation in the first place is the best way to stay safe.

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"Driving slowly and sensibly, while staying clear of distractions such as mobile phones, is the best way to avoid difficulties because you have more time to react."

On Monday, the yard of Huntingdon fire station looked like the scene of a major road accident - with one car on its roof and window glass from others showering all around - as firefighters demonstrated how to get out of a sinking car.

A beefy firefighter showed the futility of trying to kick out a front windscreen - the laminated glass eventually cracked but would not give way. But side windows and the rear glass of the overturned Astra gave way instantly.

However, the life hammer, part of the county's £13,000 education campaign, is a lightweight tool designed to make the escape from the water easier.

At one end is a tungsten-tipped hammer for breaking a toughened glass side window, at the other a device for cutting through a seatbelt.

The fire service's Ronnie Booth said cold, panic and darkness were the main dangers when a car entered the water. He advised ensuring everyone in the vehicle was ready to leave it before smashing a window.

Ambulance service team leader Kevin Hamlyn said sudden immersion in cold water led to asphyxia in 85 per cent of cases, possibly leading to cardiac arrest.

People immersed in the water for 25 minutes or more would die. Thirty-five per cent of those brought out unconscious would die and 10 per cent would suffer permanent neurological damage.

However, the thousands of campaigners who have called for average speed cameras along the road, an overtaking ban, barriers, a lower speed limit and lighting will also hope that the hammer - 18cm (7in) long - will not be the only weapon in the council's armoury.

Ramsey councillor Ray Powell said: "The Forty Foot needs a deterrent to speeding drivers. Some of them go along there at 80 and 100mph. Putting in speed cameras is the only way to deal with that.

"Education may work for a while, and the council will say this is working so we don't need to do anything else, but then people will go back to their old habits until there is another dreadful accident."

Installation of £400,000 average speed cameras to enforce the 50mph speed limit - recent tests clocked one motorist at 118mph - will be considered by the county council in December. But the scheme, which is currently being evaluated for its ability to save lives, will have to compete with half a dozen other life-saving schemes for the £900,000 annual budget for medium-sized projects.

Insp Andy Chatfield, head of the county's safety camera partnership, said, in the meantime, the road would be policed by mobile speed cameras.

Russell de Ville, the county's head of traffic management and road safety, said there had been 28 injury accidents on the 7.5km stretch over five years, 19 involving excessive speed.

"But it's certainly not the worst road of this type in Cambridgeshire," he said. "The B1101 north of Wisbech is far worse. But we already have plans for it."

On December 21 last year, a father and son, Dean and Jordan Hawes, died when their car left the road at about 5pm as they drove from Chatteris to Huntingdon to collect Jordan's mother, Michelle, from work.

On February 1, three Portuguese factory workers died when their car left the road around 5am. A fourth passenger, a 19-year-old who lost his father in the accident, managed to escape to the bank. Other tragic deaths go back through the decades.

The road safety advice is:

* Drive at a suitable speed

* Be careful when overtaking

* Always wear a seatbelt.

Advice for escaping from a vehicle that has entered the water is:

* Wearing a seatbelt will help you survive an impact and escape

* Stay calm and get out of the vehicle as quickly as you can

* Unbuckle your seatbelt and make sure passengers do, too.

* Open the window quickly, but not the door.

* Use a life hammer to smash a window and escape through it.

* Call for emergency services' help as soon as you can

* In most cases a vehicle will float for a while before the weight of the engine pulls it under, allowing time to escape.