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What to do if an earthquake hits while you're driving

Photo by Alamy Stock Photo

Southern Californians spend a lot of time on the road, so there’s a chance you’ll be in your car when an earthquake hits.

You might already have an earthquake kit at home and a family emergency plan. You’ve even practiced how to “drop, cover, and hold on.” But do you know what to do if a major earthquake hits while you’re driving, and are you prepared? Here are a few tips from Caltrans and the Auto Club.

1. Make your way to the side of the road and set the parking brake.

Avoid stopping under overpasses or power lines, on bridges, or near signs and other hazards that could fall on your vehicle. Stay inside the vehicle until the shaking stops. If you can continue driving, proceed carefully because you may encounter fallen debris and cracked or shifted pavement. Watch for emergency vehicles, and, as usual, pull over to let them through.

2. If a power line falls on or near your car, do not get out.

Also, do not touch metal items inside, such as your seat belt buckle, the steering wheel, or the door handle, which could result in electrocution. Instead, stay put, call 911, then place your hands on your lap. “Stay inside until a trained person arrives to remove the wire,” Burdick says. Rescue personnel may be delayed in a major disaster.

3. If you’re driving on a coastal road, tune in to a local radio station for tsunami warnings and evacuation routes, then head inland.

(A tsunami can travel inland as far as 10 miles.) An earthquake caused by the San Andreas fault is unlikely to result in a tsunami because it is so far from the coast, but an earthquake created by an oceanic fault could trigger a massive wave. A map of tsunami zones is available here.

4. Fuel up.

If power is out, gas stations will be unable to dispense fuel, so always keep your tank at least a quarter full.

5. Prepare an earthquake-survival kit for each of your vehicles.

Ready America and Quake Kare sell preassembled kits and offer discounts to AAA members. These are some items to include. 

  • Bottled water 
  • Class ABC extinguishers (equipped to put out electrical, grease, and gas fires)
  • First aid kit and manual
  • Emergency-signal devices (whistle, light sticks, battery-type flasher, reflector, mirror, etc.)
  • Reflective triangles to make your vehicle more visible
  • Flashlight with fresh batteries, or a hand-crank flashlight
  • Thick work gloves
  • Compass 
  • Jumper cables
  • Duct tape
  • Sneakers
  • Tool kit or a multipurpose utility tool
  • Rope for towing, rescue, etc.
  • Paper maps (because you might not have cell service). A variety of city and regional maps are available for free at your local AAA branch.

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