Driving to Safety: The Car Owner's Guide to Emergency Evacuation

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When an emergency evacuation order is issued, there isn’t a moment to waste. It’s crucial to have a plan for getting your family to safety, and in most instances this will mean traveling by car. But it isn’t as simple as gathering everyone into the family minivan and hitting the road — there are preparations to be made long before the evacuation order is given, as well as many safety precautions to take on the road.

This guide is designed to protect your family amid the chaos of an emergency evacuation by car. It will start by going over the important tools and supplies you should consider keeping in your vehicle, then move on to general emergency travel guidelines. Then it will discuss any additional precautions to make in case of extreme rain or snow, as well as advice for preparing your family.

Don’t wait until emergency strikes to figure out how your family will evacuate. Read on to find out the best ways to prepare ahead of time so you’re ready the moment the order is issued.

Vehicle Emergency Kits: Your Best Friend in Preparation

There are a few items you should always keep in your car. Not only will they be extremely helpful in emergency situations, but they’ll be handy anytime you run into trouble on the road. Your vehicle emergency kit might include:

  • First Aid Kit
  • Driver's Manual
  • Paper Maps
  • Flashlight
  • Work Gloves
  • Car Jack
  • Lug Wrench
  • Jumper Cables
  • Reflective Triangles and/or Emergency Flares
  • Emergency Cash
  • Spare Fuses
  • Tire Inflator
  • Tire Repair Kit

These tools will be especially important in the event of an emergency where tumultuous road conditions may cause issues. Never opt to rely on your personal technology to fill in for these items; paper maps may seem obsolete if your phone has a fantastic GPS app, but if your service is spotty or your battery is on its last leg, it won’t do you any good. Further, always keep a hard copy of your insurance company’s phone number and auto club information (if you have it) in your glove box. If you’ve lost or broken your phone but are able to borrow someone else’s, it can save you precious moments in calling for help.

If you live in a particularly rural or wooded area, you may also want to keep sand, pieces of carpet, or even cat litter in the trunk — should your car get stuck in the mud or snow, they’ll allow you the traction you need to get out. Duct tape is another fantastic option to include in your emergency kit — it’s a quick fix for all kinds of problems, and can help you get back on the road quicker during tough weather conditions.

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A crucial tool to keep in your vehicle is a car escape tool: one end is a seatbelt cutter and the opposite end aids in breaking or prying open windows. However, this should NOT be kept with your safety kit. Instead, you should mount it to the side of the driver’s seat so that it is always quickly and easily accessible. Make it a habit to regularly check to ensure it hasn’t fallen out of reach — the last thing you want is to reach for it in an emergency and realize it’s somewhere under your seat.

Some people take their vehicle emergency kit a step further and keep it constantly stocked with evacuation supplies like bottled water, non-perishable food, blankets, extra clothing, extra medication, and pet supplies. This is certainly a valuable option if you have a truck or SUV, but smaller vehicles may simply lack the space for both everyday needs and evacuation supplies. A valuable alternative is to keep a “go bag” of these supplies in your garage or a closet near the front door; with the materials already gathered, your only step will be to toss it in the car. Each member of the family should have their own go bag with the items they’ll need, and should be in charge of grabbing it when the time to evacuate comes. Bear in mind that children may need help initially putting theirs together.

Preparing for and Driving During an Emergency Evacuation

Anytime there’s inclement weather or a potentially dangerous situation forthcoming, keep a close eye on the news to stay informed. Listen for updates not only about evacuation orders, but also for information on downed power lines, closed roads, flooded areas, and other dangerous conditions you may be able to avoid. You can also consult with neighbors and loved ones in your area: if they drive different daily routes, they may be able to offer tips on which areas are dangerous and which are allowing traffic to move relatively quickly.

Be sure to fill up your gas tank if you even think there could be an evacuation. Put your go bag in the car if you have advanced warning that there could be an evac order issued, and add any additional supplies you might need — a few extra sweaters if it’s particularly cold out, for example — but don’t overload. Driving in turbulent conditions with a car full of frightened family, children, and pets will be stressful enough, so don’t add to your anxiety by making everyone jam in among non-essential items.

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While waiting for an official order, check your car to ensure it’s in good working order and can make the trip without issue. Clean the headlights and tail lights, wipe down the windshield, and check that your wipers are clean and functioning, and add wiper fluid as needed. If the temperature is low, check your antifreeze level and add coolant if you need to. Finally, take a moment to be absolutely certain your tailpipe is clear of any ice or other blockages: carbon monoxide poisoning is silent but deadly, and if your family will be in the car for an extended period, you want to be sure they’ll be safe.

If your government orders an evacuation, follow their instructions implicitly. Don’t try to wait it out in case conditions improve or take an alternate route instead of a designated evac route. Remember, officials are working off of advanced information that you may not be aware of, so their word on what’s safest is trustworthy.

Once your family is loaded up, buckled up, and on the way, limit distractions as much as possible. Keep the radio tuned to local news or weather, and keep discussions to a minimum so you can concentrate on driving. Be on the lookout for broken power lines, car accidents, flooding, debris, pedestrians, and other hazards on the road. Approach intersections with caution: if stoplights aren’t working there may be a police officer directing traffic, but if no one is there to direct you, it should be treated as a four-way stop.

Keep your speed steady and relatively low so you have plenty of time to react to changing conditions. Always signal your intentions to turn, change lanes, or merge well in advance. Most states don’t allow drivers to use their hazard lights while driving, and instead advise they be used only to make your car visible if you’re stalled on the roadside or are pulling off to deal with an emergency. Only pull off to the side of the road if your car is malfunctioning or there’s an unsafe situation with your family — if your young child in the backseat is choking, for instance, it’s dangerous to try to navigate the road while panicked, even if your spouse is there to help.

Use your low-beam headlights to make your car more visible to oncoming vehicles. You might be tempted to turn on your high-beams, but don’t! It can actually reduce your visibility as well as blind oncoming drivers, especially in foggy conditions. If you’re having trouble seeing the road in front of you, it may help to use reflective lane markers as a guide. You may even be able to use the tail lights of the car ahead as your guide, but be sure you don’t follow too closely — increase your usual three-second following distance even if conditions seem clear. Further, keep in mind that the driver ahead may have trouble seeing, as well, so constantly refer to lane markings to ensure that he or she hasn’t veered off-track and unintentionally led you to do the same.

Be wary of high winds, especially if you drive a large vehicle that will be more susceptible to tipping. Expect to encounter random large gusts, and be careful not to overreact if one startles you. Keep a firm grip on the wheel at all times and overcome the wind as calmly and smoothly as possible. Be conscious of where other large vehicles like SUVs are on the road in relation to you, and avoid ending up next to them as much as possible.

If you aren’t completely certain of your route, use a hands-free GPS to guide you if conditions allow. Otherwise, have another passenger guide you via map or otherwise. Never allow yourself to be distracted by your phone while you’re moving, even if it’s genuinely to reference map guidance. If you’re traveling solo, your car should have a mount for your smartphone or GPS system.

Continue to drive cautiously even after you’ve cleared the main area of danger. Severe storms can not only move quickly and catch you by surprise, they can cause additional hazardous conditions like tornadoes and landslides even miles away. Further, many people on the road will be anxious or even lost attempting to get to safety, and may be driving erratically.

Additional Considerations: Flooding

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The general rule for driving in flooding conditions is turn around, dont drown: simply put, never attempt to drive through a flooded road. You have no way of knowing the condition of the terrain underneath or any lurking debris that could impede your car. There could even be a broken power line close by that’s electrified the water. Even if the water doesn’t appear to be moving, the safest option is always to turn around and find an alternate route. Still convinced your car could handle a little flooding? Keep in mind it only takes about six inches of water to reach the bottom of most passenger vehicles, which can cause you to stall or lose control. It takes only about a foot of standing water to float most cars.

Floods are a serious driving danger for any car, even those that sit up high. In fact, two feet of rushing water can sweep up most vehicles without much trouble, including large pick-up trucks and SUVs. Even seemingly slow-flowing flood waters have far more power than most realize: at only 7 miles per hour, flowing water has the same amount of force per unit area as winds from an EF5 tornado. Remember, no matter how inconvenient the detour: turn around, don’t drown.

If your car becomes stuck and stationary in flood water, it’s usually best to stay inside the vehicle and call for help. However, if the water is shallow enough to see to the bottom and completely unmoving, plus there is dry land very nearby, it may be better to get your family out. When you call 911, ask the emergency responder your best course of action.

If your vehicle becomes submerged, it’s vital that you act immediately to get out before it sinks. A general rule of thumb is “seatbelts, windows, children, out”: unbuckle your seatbelt the moment your car hits the water, or use your emergency cutter if it gets stuck. If you have power windows, they may not be functioning properly, so use the other end of your cutting tool to either break or pry it open. (Keep in mind that even if the door isn’t forced shut, opening it will allow in more water more quickly and sink your car that much quicker.) Prioritize getting your children out first — they’ll likely have a tougher time battling the rushing water, so you may have to help push them out. Young children may do best to stay in your arms, so consider holding them as you get yourself out. Timing is absolutely crucial when it comes to a submerged car, so don’t waste time calling 911 or reaching for any belongings. It’s estimated that you have only a minute to get yourself and your family out safely, so make every second count. Only call for help once everyone has made it out of the car to safety.

Additional Considerations: Snow and Ice

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If you’ll be driving in particularly icy conditions, you may want to consider adding chains to your tires. Keep in mind that different states have different laws about the kinds of tire traction you can use, so find out what the standards are in your area. Even if you’ve never needed them before, it may be worth the investment to buy some kind of tire traction device — less expensive options include a sort of “sock” you can place over the tire — if you live in an area with snowy winters. It’s impossible to say when an especially nasty storm could pop up, and you don’t want to face the stress of rushing to the store before evacuating.

You also may want to pack extra blankets, socks, gloves, hats, and other winter gear if you’ll be evacuating in the snow. (Pet owners: don’t forget extra materials for your animals!) If you become stuck, you’ll want to be sure you stay plenty warm while help is on its way to you. If your car does stall in freezing conditions, do not go looking for outside help unless you know exactly where you are and are completely certain you’re close to a building with people. Use your emergency flares or reflective triangles to mark the front and back ends of your car, or tie a piece of brightly colored material to your antennae to make your vehicle as visible as possible. If you’re unable to call for help, you may wish to honk the horn for long periods (you might even want to try the S.O.S. morse code) to attract attention. If your car still has fuel and you’ve re-checked the exhaust pipe for obstructions, run the engine and car heater for about 10 minutes every hour or so. If you’re low on fuel, try to depend on your extra winter gear for warmth as much as possible, but don’t force anyone — especially children — past their limits. It may help for everyone to huddle together in the backseat to maximize your body heat. And though it sounds counterproductive, keep at least one window slightly open; heavy snow can actually cause a car to become sealed shut.

A Note on Preparing Your Family

Talk to your family about your evacuation plan long before it needs to be implemented, especially children; though they will likely still be afraid in the moment, it will be less jarring if they’ve been prepared with a conversation and have steps they can focus on taking. Let them choose a toy or stuffed animal ahead of time that they’ll be allowed to bring in the car for comfort — just make sure to let them know that if it’s a noisy toy, it will need to be kept quiet on the drive so that you can safely concentrate.

Practice emergency drills with the entire family, including your pets. You can even make it a game: keep records of how long it takes everyone to gather their go bags, get into the car, and hit the road. Try to better your time with each drill, and address any issues that seem to be hurting you. Designate a specific family member to grab the pets. Further, if your pet normally doesn’t do well in the car, use the drills as an opportunity to get used to it. Drive around the block at a slow, steady speed at first, then work your way up to faster speeds on main roads. Your pet may still be somewhat freaked out in an evacuation, but at the very least the car won’t be completely unfamiliar territory. 

Facing an emergency evacuation is frightening no matter how you look at it, but the more prepared you are ahead of time, the fewer challenges you’ll encounter when disaster hits. 

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