Are vehicles safe from tornadoes?

Published 9:55 pm Friday, June 5, 2009

The scenario: You find yourself in a car, far from any shelter, and a tornado is approaching. What do you do?

Common sense should tell you that if you are adequately prepared for severe weather, you shouldn’t find yourself in this situation. But if you do, should you stay in your vehicle or get in a ditch?

“Neither is a good spot. It’s a choice between two evils,” said John Ferree, severe storm services leader with the National Weather Service’s Warning Decision Training Branch in Norman, Okla.

Both the American Red Cross and National Weather Service agree that a sturdy shelter is the best place to be during a tornado. But a revised statement from the Red Cross indicates that when no other shelter is available, a vehicle may provide the best protection from flying debris.

“We’re not recommending that people get in a car during a tornado. We’re just saying that it’s the better alternative to a ditch,” said Jacqueline C. Buck, CEO of the American Red Cross’ Central Alabama region.

The new guidelines are based on six research studies by various authors over the past 20 years. Part of this research is based on wind tunnel studies done on cars. The guidelines read as follows:

Get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and drive at right angles to the storm movement so you can get out of the path of the tornado.

If strong winds and flying debris occur while you are driving, pull over and park, keeping seat belts on and the engine running. Put your head down below the windows and cover your head with your hands and a blanket if possible.

But NWS has not been as quick to change its guidelines, which include the following:

Get out of automobiles

Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car; instead, leave it immediately for safe shelter.

If caught outside or in a vehicle, lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands.

“Wind speeds in a ditch or depression would be much lower than in your vehicle just above the ground,” Ferree pointed out.

Because flying debris is the number one cause of fatalities in tornadoes, Ferree expressed concerns about debris going through cars. He added that 8 percent of fatalities occur in vehicles.

“I think we have enough fatalities in vehicles right now that we should question that we have enough research,” Ferree said.

The effectiveness of guidelines also depends on the situation. It’s more conceivable that someone would try to outrun a tornado in Oklahoma, where tornadoes can be easy to see, than in Alabama where trees, terrain, moisture and cover of night make them less visible.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t really know where to drive,” Ferree said.

Both organizations agree on the importance of preparedness in severe weather, which should preempt all other plans.

“I think the bottom line is, don’t get yourself caught in that situation,” Ferree said.