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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 05/28/2009

Confusion on What to Do If Car Meets Tornado

By Steve Tracton

National Weather Service & Red Cross agree to disagree

* Stormy P.M. Commute? Full Forecast | Preparing for Hurricanes *

The National Weather Service uses this picture of a mangled car to discourage people from staying in their vehicle during a tornado.

Pop quiz: You're driving along when suddenly the stormy weather turns even more serious -- a tornado is bearing down on your car with strong winds and flying debris. There's no time to turn the car around and outrun the twister, or to reach by car or on foot the shelter of a nearby building. What do you do?

The consensus advice among the National Weather Service (NWS), American Red Cross, and other public- and private-sector organizations has long been to abandon the vehicle and lie flat in a ditch with your hands covering your head. That is until earlier this month when the Red Cross changed its recommendation to: "Pull over and park, keeping seat belts on and the engine running. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible."

So which is it? Get out of the car or stay in? Or, in more pessimistic words: Risk being impaled by flying debris (the No. 1 cause of injuries and deaths from tornadoes) outside the car? Or stay in the car and hope that you and the vehicle itself don't become flying debris?

Keep reading for more on the conflicting tornado safety advice, and tell us what you would do by voting in our poll...

As first reported by the Weather Channel's Greg Forbes, the Red Cross changed its advice based on research led by Kent State University professor Tom Schmidlin that found that a relatively small percentage of vehicles were moved or tipped over during tornadoes and that a vehicle may be safer than the outdoors.

The NWS, however, has yet to budge from its abandon-your-car approach. Its safety guidelines say that "vehicles are notorious as death traps in tornadoes, because they are easily tossed and destroyed."

The discrepancy in recommendations has now been addressed (papered over?) with the release of a joint statement by the NWS and Red Cross, in which the NWS affirms that its guidance to get out of automobiles has not changed, but that the NWS and Red Cross "are jointly reviewing the science behind the traditional and revised tornado safety statements."

Perhaps most important, the statement pointedly notes that both staying in your car or seeking shelter in a ditch are options of last resort and provide little protection. According to the statement, the NWS and Red Cross agree on the importance of "identifying a safe location in advance of any severe weather" and that during a tornado "the safest place to be is in an underground shelter, basement or safe room."

This controversy has captured my attention in particular because of a personal encounter with a tornado. In 1995, I was in my car one night, patiently waiting the opportunity to turn from a driveway onto a street in Temple Hills, Md., when seemingly out of nowhere the wind increased to what I perceived as hurricane strength. Needless to say, I was totally surprised and scared beyond belief when my car rose at least two feet off the ground. Fortunately, the wind decreased as rapidly as it had increased, and my car settled back down on the driveway.

In my case, there was no time to take action, let alone weigh the possible options. After the fact, I learned I had been only about 100 yards from the path of a tornado spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Opal. The tornado reportedly produced a peak wind of 150 mph, injured three people and resulted in $5 million damage to nearby homes.

Related Links

National Weather Service Tornado Safety
American Red Cross Tornado Safety
Federal Emergency Management Agency Tornado Safety

Projectile Automobiles

By Steve Tracton  | May 28, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Thunderstorms, Tracton  
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Something tells me that this might one of the few times when a Hummer would be a better choice than a Smartcar.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | May 28, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I've always been confused about the lay flat in a ditch advice. Since tornadoes are often part of a system that includes torrential rain and deadly lightning, it seems to me that lying flat in a ditch means lying face down in a stream of runoff and rainwater while cloud-to-ground lightning strikes all around you.

I don't get it.

We were on the highway in Indiana one night and the radio was saying "there's a tornado in whatever county" and we realized that we were indeed in that very county, but we didn't know where we were in relation to the tornado. But we were not surprised that there was a tornado in the vicinity, given the severity of the storm we were driving through (I've never seen anything like it). It was way too dark and rainy to hope to see a tornado and evade it. So we...kept driving (I should say my husband kept driving. We had a bit of a disagreement about what we should do - he didn't like my idea of checking into a hotel as soon as I saw the wall of green clouds in the distance. But he is not from Indiana, so maybe he didn't understand what we were looking at). It was terrifying. At some point we were driving and a bright lightning strike lit up the billboards around us and in that split second we saw that they had been gnarled to bits. I'm glad we weren't.

And about the hotel idea. I was so sure afterward that I had been proven right, that we should have checked into a hotel. But he was like, "What? We survived and we got to where we were going! I call this a win!"

Posted by: LaurainNWDC | May 28, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

What is the point of keeping the engine running?

Posted by: dcwarren | May 28, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

@ WashingtonDame: That Hummer will provide minimal protection. Any tornado capable of picking up a railroad locomotive will make short work of a Hummer or even an 18-wheeler. Naturally, no SmartCar would survive.

It has been reported that a tornado once picked up a locomotive, spun it 180 degrees and set it on a parallel track facing the opposite direction.

Flying cars have actually been observed in EF3 and stronger tornadoes. It would be best to extend your wings and prepare for takeoff.

The F5 Colfax, WI tornado of June 4, 1958 totally destroyed a car and a nearby highway bridge, while a few hundred yards away two dozen eggs were left completely untouched. The same tornado picked up an unfolded insurance policy near Knapp, WI and carried it 75 miles away, depositing it in a field in the township of Sheldon.

More recently, a late March tornado in the same general area carried an invoice from Saint Peter, MN to Boyceville, WI. Many of the unusual events associated with tornadoes have been found to be attributable to the high winds rather than to sharp air pressure differentials as had previously been believed.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | May 28, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea, thanks for sharing the excellent stories. The F5 Colfax one would be better if the insurance policy was folded and in an envelope when it landed in Knapp.

CapWeatherGang, is there any controversy on not using an underpass as shelter? Or is the universal advice to avoid them?

Posted by: spgass1 | May 28, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Ok- given that you will be hit by a tornado strong enough to lift a car and throw it- why wouldn't you rather be buckled in, steel safety cage, 20 airbags and all, as opposed to unprotected with your face in the grass in a ditch?

Modern, safe cars (not the ones that a 30 some year old study was based on) probably would protect their occupants fairly well, even if thrown. I know I wouldn't want the only thing between me and a tornado to be my clothing. I'm staying in my car.

Posted by: markinva | May 28, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

This seems like a real no brainer to me.

Stay in the car and benefit from all of the protection it offers; which with modern cars and safety standards is quite a lot.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | May 28, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

I agree that staying in the car for protection is likely the better bet for the lower end of the Fujita scale storms - which constitute the majority of tornadoes. However, for at least the F4 and F5 storms, all bets are off - pick your poison.

The problem, of course, is there is no way to tell for sure how intense the tornado is in advance - it can take quite a while for even the NWS to categorize a given storm after the fact. The tornado I encountered was, I believe, an F3 (old scale). Had I taken a left turn onto the road and been directly in the storm path, I have no doubt my car would have been blown into a tree or other car. Having seen the damage and debris all around afterwards, I probably would have been injured, but not necessarily more so if I had jumped out onto the ground.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | May 28, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I think I would stay in the car. Even if the car gets picked up and thrown, I have to believe the air bags, seat belts etc. would offer some incremental protection. I can just see jumping out of the car, lying facedown in a ditch full of rainwater, trying not to drown, and then being crushed to death when the tornado picks up the car and drops it on top of me.

Posted by: ajsmithva | May 28, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

The key takeaway here is that everyone should carry one of those sumo wrestling suits with them at all times.

Posted by: dcwarren | May 28, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I would NOT stay in my car. You have to realize that your car can not only bes tossed around like a rag doll, but debris can impale your car. Pay attention to some of the pictures and videos out there. The car may not moved, but large pieces of debris are embedded in the side of the car like a dart. You can do that, but that seems like playing a game you may not win.

Posted by: jkeyeser | May 28, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

To me, it's a no-brainer. The chances of a direct hit on your car by a tornado, even a mile-wide F4 or F5 tornado, are not very good......IMO, in most cases, you are far better off staying in the car. Get out of the car, and you could be directly hit by large hail(up to tennis-ball size in some big storms), all kinds of debris, falling tree branches, blown off your feet by strong straight-line or microburst winds, hit by name it.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | May 28, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

I imagine that if I am close enough to a tornado that I can't turn my car around to try and evade it that I also won't have the guts to open my car door and run to a ditch!

Posted by: jb41477 | May 29, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

In order for the airbags to deploy in an auto, don't you have to be moving and then have an impact? It doesn't seem to me that they would just deploy if tossed around?

On another note, the sumo wrestler comment is priceless.

Posted by: RCKING2 | May 29, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

"It has been reported that a tornado once picked up a locomotive, spun it 180 degrees and set it on a parallel track facing the opposite direction."

And that tornado was being ridden by Pecos Bill!

Posted by: pjwhittle | May 29, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

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