Mark Arum: Gridlock Guy

I was on the air Friday night taking calls from people trying to hold on during the storms. A number of callers were out driving in the bad weather wondering what they should do. I figured now was a good time to review what the experts say on tornado safety while driving.

I have always been told to get out of my car during a tornado, that being in a car in such a violent storm is a huge mistake. I’m not going to lie to you; if caught in a tornado, I would have second thoughts about fleeing my car unless there was a stable building nearby. I decided to do some research on the subject.

Most sources still recommend getting out of your vehicle if a tornado approaches. The best advice seems to be to find a low spot on the ground away from trees and to lie face down with your hands covering your head to protect yourself from flying debris. Hiding under bridges and overpasses is not suggested, with those structures often becoming traps for tornado-strewn debris.

I did, however, find one scientific study that might change the way people view this situation in the future. Conducted in 2002 by Kent State University, Wichita State University and Boyce Thompson Institute, the research was used to determine the “safety and stability of stationary motor vehicles exposed to severe winds.”

Data was used from 291 vehicles exposed to tornadoes, two “storm-chasing” vehicles and a wind tunnel used to see how high wind speeds effected both sedans and mini-vans. The findings were quite interesting.

Cars exposed to F-1 or F-2 (73-157 mph winds) tornadoes were not moved by the high winds 72 percent of the time. Ninety-six percent of the cars exposed to F-1 and F-2 winds did not tip over. That means in an F-1 or F-2 tornado there is a 4-percent chance that your car could tip over.

The higher the wind speeds, the greater chance of car movement. Cars exposed during F-3 and F-4 ( 155-260 mph winds) tornadoes were “moved” 50 percent of the time and tipped over 18 percent of the time.

The study concluded that: “Although an underground shelter or sturdy building offer the best protection from severe winds, it is found that a vehicle may be a relatively stable place and may be safer than a mobile home or the outdoors. These findings may warrant changes to public recommendations made during tornado warnings and other severe storm situations.”

Now, I’m not saying that you should definitely stay in your car when a tornado is approaching, but it may be your best bet if you can’t find a permanent structure of low-lying area to take cover.

The Red Cross might have put it best on its website. If you are caught outdoors, seek shelter in a basement, shelter or sturdy building. If you cannot quickly walk to a shelter:

Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter.

If flying debris occurs while you are driving, pull over and park. Now you have the following options as a last resort:

Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.

If you can safely get lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.

Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.

Hopefully, none of us will ever have to make this decision during a tornado.

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