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Climate and Environment

What You Should Do If You End Up Driving In A Flooded Area

Cars drive in the dark with their headlights, splashing through standing water on a roadway
Drivers barrel into standing water on Interstate 101 in San Francisco on Jan. 4, 2023.
(Josh Edelson /AFP via Getty Images
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We’ve covered how to drive in the rain before because this is Los Angeles, and navigating wet weather has never been our strong suit. But as our rainy season’s gotten worse, drivers are winding up in tire-high bodies of water trying to get from point A to point B — even on regular city streets.

Most drivers don’t get on the road expecting to end up on flooded freeways and street corners, so we want to help you recognize and avoid dangerous road conditions. Here’s what to do when you find yourself in a tricky situation.

Figuring Out If An Area's Too Risky For Driving

First, let’s state the obvious: Both the California Highway Patrol and the American Automobile Association in Southern California recommend that you stay home and not drive when flooding conditions are happening. But as we all know, life is a rain or shine event.

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Keep an eye on your surroundings. Shanelle Phillips, an officer with the California Highway Patrol, says you should drive cautiously and look for signage. Those can be yellow diamond signs or pink ones that say ‘flooding ahead.’

“We recommend to drive slowly and to stay far away from the vehicle that’s in front of them, just in case there’s anything major going on,” Phillips said.

Those signs can tell you if an area is prone to flash floods, mudslides or other problems that make driving dangerous. They can be permanent or a temporary sign on a road that authorities are responding to.

If you’re in a canyon, look out for these signs as well as debris on the road to determine if it’s safe. As the rain gets heavier, though, dangerous roads can happen anywhere, including street corners, city street shoulders and freeways.

Agencies can get overrun when flooding and rockslides happen in multiple areas, and that makes it difficult to get signage up fast. It’s also very hard to tell how deep standing water is just by looking at it.

“Don't expect that because the roadway is not coned off or marked off that it’s not potentially dangerous,” said Doug Shupe, corporate communications manager with AAA. “If that road is covered by water, you should turn around and never drive through flooded areas.”

What Shupe is referring to is the old saying, “Turn Around Don't Drown” and it’s why officials are so aggressive about staying off the roads. According to the National Weather Service, just 12 inches of rushing water can carry away most cars, and two feet can carry away SUVs and trucks.

Flooded roads can cause a vehicle to stall and severely damage it, Shupe says. Water can flood the engine, warp the brake rotors, make you lose power steering and even short out the electrical components.

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What To Do If You’re Stuck

If you’re confident your vehicle will stay stationary but find yourself in a dangerous situation, don’t try to move forward. Phillips says you should stay in your car with your seatbelt on, turn on your hazards and immediately call 911.

What makes your situation safe — or dangerous — can vary based on how deep the water is, your ability to back up and where your car is positioned in or near that water. If it’s rising fast, you should get to higher ground.

“If you are in immediate danger… then you want to try to get to higher ground because the concern is that the vehicle will start moving swiftly and could even potentially roll over,” Shupe said. “But every situation is different.”

We’ve seen that happen often in the L.A. River — somehow, vehicles always end up in there during the rain and get swept downstream.

In either case, your priority should be making sure you and anyone else in your car stay safe and alive. Your phone should stay close so you can call for help.

How To Prepare Ahead Of Driving

Before you head out on the roads when you know there’s flooding conditions, plan ahead.

Phillips said it’s smart to keep a highlighted vest, cones and a flashlight in your trunk. The cones help notify other drivers that there’s something going on in that area, for example if you’re on a freeway shoulder (the CHP doesn’t recommend getting out of your car to place these if you’re in the middle of lanes).

You should also set up an emergency roadside kit. Inside that bag should be car essentials like jumper cables, a radio, water and snacks. If you’re going to be driving for a while, put plenty of gas in your car. Even if it’s not smart to move, engine power can help keep you warm.

Before you leave, know your route. When driving at night, check to see if there are flooded conditions along the way. If there are, you need to find another route because, as we said, it’s very difficult to know how deep the water is, and it’s not worth the risk.

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