Driving safety tips: What to do if a tornado crosses your path

Mary Lou Jay

You're in your car and you spot a tornado's funnel cloud on the horizon. Should you:

A) Keep driving away as fast as possible and hope you can outrun the storm?

B) Seek shelter beneath an underpass?

C) Exit your vehicle and find cover in a building or low-lying area?

Before you answer, keep this in mind: A vehicle is one of the most dangerous places you can be when a tornado strikes, according to the Northeast States Emergency Consortium (NESEC). Even the smallest tornadoes have hurricane-force winds; some have wind speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. A car, van or truck can't offer much protection from those winds or from the debris hurled through the air by the twister.

Your first reaction when you see a funnel cloud may be to drive to get away from it. Your distance from the tornado and the country around you can help determine whether that's a good course of action.

If you're in an urban or suburban area, surrounded by buildings and other vehicles, you won't have time or space to out-maneuver the tornado, according to NESEC. Instead of attempting to drive through the storm, park your car safely and quickly -- and make sure you leave enough room for emergency responders to get by after the twister has passed. Find shelter in a nearby building or in a low-lying area, away from vehicles and loose objects (like trash bins) that can be picked up by the tornado. Don't hide under your vehicle. Lie flat on the ground, face down, and protect the back of your head and neck with your arms.

If you're out in the country on open roads and the tornado is far away on the horizon, you might be able to drive out of its range, according to the National Weather Service. First, take a look at how it's approaching. If the tornado is heading to your right or left, you may be able to gauge its path and drive in the opposite direction. Keep in mind, however, that tornadoes are unpredictable; you never can tell when they're going to change course and head in the same direction that you've taken.

If the tornado appears to be staying in the same place, however, it's probably heading right toward you. You won't have time to outrun it; tornadoes travel up to 70 mph, according to NESEC. Seek shelter in a building or low-lying area, avoiding drainage ditches, which might flood with heavy rain that can accompany tornadoes.

It's never a good idea to seek shelter underneath a bridge or overpass, however, according to NESEC. They offer little protection because they don't surround you on all sides. In addition, the space beneath the overpass actually might funnel the tornado winds so that they travel faster and scatter more debris. Unfortunately, many people don't know about the dangers of overpasses during tornadoes. In 1999, a tornado in Ohio struck three overpasses, killing people hiding under each.

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