Driving while a tornado is on the ground is obviously not a predicament you want to find yourself in.
When it comes to driving and tornadoes, a lot of dangerous misconceptions exist, so it’s important to know what you should and shouldn’t do if you are driving when a tornado is on the ground.
Do not try to outrun the tornado
While it may be tempting to try and outrun a tornado, this is not a wise choice. A tornado’s path can change in an instant, sometimes switching directions at random. You could be driving away from a tornado when it suddenly charges down your path.
"Never try to outrun a tornado. If however, the tornado, you can clearly see that it's going in a different direction, you should try to get away from it at the right and correct angles to ensure that it's not catching up with you," said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, also known as the nonprofit FLASH.
Do not seek shelter under your car
Hiding under your car is never a good idea during a tornado. The twister may drop objects on your car, which could end up crushing you. The tornado could also blow your car off you, removing your shelter.
Do not seek shelter under a highway overpass, bridge or tunnel
Because tunnels lack four walls and bridges have no walls, these structures do not protect you from a tornado’s winds. Instead, tunnels and bridges may act as a channel that increases the speed of a tornado’s wind, making it a more dangerous place to be.
"One of the common misconceptions, unfortunately, that is very dangerous, is when people try to park under a bridge or under some type of overpass – never do that," Henderson said. "And the reason is because that is actually a place where the wind speeds will increase, and that will heighten the danger."
Pull your car onto the side of the road and seek shelter
The best course of action if you spot a tornado while driving is to pull over and seek shelter. If there are sturdy buildings around, enter one and go to its lowest level without windows. If no such shelter is available, find the lowest point on the ground, such as a ditch or culvert, and lie down, covering your head with your hands. NOAA recommends getting as far away from your car as possible in that situation. Try to avoid places with trees or other objects that might get picked up by the tornado.
"We always tell people to have a disaster supply kit around their home. We want you to have one in your car as well," Henderson said. "And in that supply kit, you should always have a blanket, flashlight, road flashers in case, say, for example, your car can't be easily removed from the road or safely removed from the road. You want to set off those flashers, so you don't have a compounding situation with a traffic accident."
Is the tornado moving toward you?
NOAA recommended that if the traffic allows and the tornado is distant, you probably have time to drive out of its path. It suggests watching the tornado closely for a few seconds compared to a fixed object in the foreground (such as a tree, pole or another landmark).
If the tornado appears to be moving to your right or left, it is not moving toward you. Still, NOAA recommended that you should drive at right angles to its track: to your right if it is moving to your left, and vice versa – just to put more distance between you and its path.
If the tornado appears to stay in the same place, growing larger or getting closer – but not moving either right or left – it is headed right at you.
If you are caught in the tornado
If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible – out of the traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seatbelt on. Put your head down below the windows, and cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat or other cushions if possible.
"Be certain you have on a seatbelt and everyone else in the vehicle has on a seatbelt as well," Henderson said. "A second thing is to have some type of blanket or protection from potential broken glass because, of course, your car windshield and the windows could become breached by the flying debris."
The best tactic is to avoid driving in these conditions, but if you find that an unfeasible option, please drive safely and follow as many safety precautions as possible.
"A car is just not the place to be (during a tornado)," Henderson said. "So you should avoid it at all costs, and with the advent of weather information today in alerting, all it really takes is heightened awareness, especially if you live, like so many of us do, in a place that has a lot of tornadoes."