Tip Sheet

How to survive an earthquake while you’re inside your vehicle

A car driving along a cracked road damaged by an earthquake
PHOTO: Shutterstock

We all know what we’re supposed to do in an earthquake: stop, duck and cover. But when you’re in a moving car during a seismic activity, what to do isn’t as clear. And the movement of the car often masks the onset of the quake, so by the time you’re aware of it, it’s often too late to find shelter.

What do you do if an earthquake occurs while you’re driving?

1) Drive to safety slowly.

If you’re lucky and the roads are clear, move the car away from utility poles, power lines, and buildings. Don’t stop on or under bridges and overpasses, and make sure you’re parked on stable ground. Turn off the car and wait.

2) Stay in the car.

If you can reach a sturdy structure before the tremors get serious, do so. If not, stay belted in. The suspension will absorb the jolts, and the steel crash cage provides protection against minor debris like glass and rubble. Curl up and protect your head with your hands. If there’s space, lie across the seats and get as low as possible.

3) If you’re on the Skyway and far from an exit...

...your best bet for survival would be to park the vehicle away from expansion joints to lessen chances of being crushed if the slabs slip off their supports. Sit upright with your belt fastened, to give yourself better chances of survival in case of a fall.


4) If you’re underneath the Skyway or an overpass... 

...a widely circulated theory called the ‘Triangle of Life’ suggests you get out and lie down beside your car. But although cars often prop up large slabs—leaving pockets of air beside them—smaller pieces can kill you. Also, cars may shift around beside you during a quake, either pinning you down or leaving you exposed. If you can’t leave the shadow of the structure, staying inside the car and covering up are your best bets for survival.

5) If the car has been severely damaged by the quake, move away.

Fumes from spilled gasoline are both a health and a fire hazard. If you are trapped inside your car, keep your engine off to prevent carbon-monoxide poisoning and try to signal rescuers with your horn.

Now, after the earthquake, what should you do?

1) Stay put. 

Roads will be clogged with debris and traffic. If possible, stay where you are.

2) Do not attempt to drive over fallen power lines or through floodwater.

Fallen power lines may still be live and dangerous. Floodwater from tidal waves or collapsed dams can conceal unseen cracks, sinkholes, and large pieces of debris.

3) If there is a tsunami alert, abandon your car.

Head for the second or third floor of the nearest structurally sound concrete-and-steel building. Trying to outrun a tsunami by driving over debris-strewn, traffic-choked roads is often a fatal mistake. It only takes 18 inches of water to carry your car away.

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4) If you are inside the car when the wave strikes, point your car along the direction of the wave’s travel.

If it strikes you side-on, this increases the chance of the water flipping it over.

5) Roll down your windows and prepare to exit.

Your chances of swimming out of a tidal wave are not very good, but your chances of survival inside a sunken car are even worse.

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