Scientists at U.C. Berkeley say they are close to completing work on the first earthquake early warning system in the U.S., which could give us anywhere from a few seconds to a full minute of warning when a big one is coming. They say even a few seconds worth of heads up could save lives, and therefore $10 million in stimulus funds are getting funneled to the project.

Other countries with more frequent earthquakes have had similar systems for years, but this would be the first of its kind in the Bay Area. The system has been in testing for a while already, and was recently able to send a signal to BART to tell them to halt all trains based on simulated quakes. Eventually, engineers want the system to be able to trigger a message sent to individual cell phones throughout the Bay Area warning people of a coming earthquake, and to be able to send signals to train dispatchers, fire houses, and ambulances.

Our biggest questions are: How has this taken so long? And what would we do with five seconds of warning before the shaking starts, especially if we were driving?