Caught driving in a dust storm? Here's what you should do

A dust storm led to a massive pileup on Interstate 55 in May, killing seven people and injuring dozens more.

Dust storms can quickly turn a peaceful drive into a nightmare by instantly reducing visibility, which can have devastating and deadly consequences.

Such was the case on May 1 in Montgomery County, Illinois, when strong winds kicked up dust and dirt from recently plowed fields that enveloped portions of Interstate 55 near Farmersville, Illinois, leading to brownout conditions that caused a massive pileup involving more than 70 vehicles and killed seven people.


While they can and do happen anywhere in the U.S., the National Weather Service says dust storms and haboobs are most common in the Southwest.

And if conditions warrant, local NWS offices will issue Dust Storm Warnings to alert people of the potentially deadly situation unfolding.

"Dust storms usually last only a few minutes, but the actions a motorist takes during the storm may be the most important of his or her life," the NWS said.

So what should you do if you’re driving and you suddenly come upon a miles-long wall of dust hundreds or thousands of feet high?

Dust storm driving safety tips

First, don't drive into a dust storm if you can safely avoid it.

If you're traveling on a roadway and you begin to see dust and dirt blowing across the road or approaching the road you're on, quickly and safely pull your car off the pavement as far as you possibly can, the NWS advises.

Then, the NWS says you should stop the vehicle, turn off your lights, set the emergency brake and take your foot off the brake pedal to ensure the tail lights are not illuminated.

If you cannot safely pull off the road, reduce your speed to that which is suitable for the visibility. Then, turn on your lights and honk your horn. The NWS says you should also use the painted line in the center of the road as a guide to help you. Then, look for a safe place to pull over.

For your and other drivers' safety, never stop your car on the traveled portion of the roadway.

Also, the Arizona Department of Transportation says you should remain inside your vehicle with your seat belt buckled while you wait for the dust storm to pass.

Shut your lights off

It's a natural reaction to drive toward the light if caught in the darkness, but that can have deadly consequences.

Drivers have previously pulled off to the side of the road and left their lights on, and vehicles approaching from behind can often mistake that as an escape from the dust storm and slam into another car.

That's why, the NWS warns, drivers should always shut their lights off when parked on the side of the road to try and avoid that situation.