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You are here: Home > Emergency Preparedness > Articles About Emergencies > Winter Survival and Floods > How to Survive a Tornado While Traveling

How to Survive a Tornado While Traveling

What if a tornado strikes while you are in a vehicle? The best options are immediately locating a secure building that offers shelter or avoiding the path of the storm. If severe thunderstorm warnings or tornado watches are being broadcast, you should begin the process of finding a protected location.

Know the direction inclement weather is coming from. Attempt to move away from the path as you seek safety.  Drive in right angles from the direction of the storm, if that will move you away from its course.

 Keep your eyes open for greenish or dark skies, hail, and swirling clouds. These are signs of conditions that may include a developing or looming tornado. Look for persistent rotation of low lying clouds or whirling dust or debris. Some tornadoes don’t have a distinguishable funnel, though the debris and wind pattern is evident. Heavy downpours that precede intense wind (or conversely an unnatural calm) may also be signs of impending tornadoes.  Listen for freight train-like sounds. Unlike thunder, the sounds of a tornado approaching are constant

Nighttime travelers should be observant for bluish-white flashes of light close to the ground which signal power lines breaking in strong wind. Watch for low lying funnel shaped clouds silhouetted by lightening. 

According to the Northeast States Emergency Consortium, (NESEC) tornadoes travel at speeds up to 70 mph, hence you can be easily overcome by dangerous winds and debris. Seeking safe shelter is the most lifesaving technique you can practice.  When you are in a wide open traffic-free area, with no obvious shelter, escape by car might still be viable if the tornado is distant and not headed toward you.

Upon spotting a tornado, observe its movement for a few seconds and compare position with a stationary object. If the tornado appears to moving to the left or right, go the opposite direction. Keep watch on the tornado and continue to seek refuge.

Shelter alternatives when you are traveling might be interior restaurant bathrooms, public rest stops, local hospitals, police stations or reinforced buildings. Get away from windows and outside walls as much as possible. Choose inner lower level or ground floor rooms. Crouch low and cover your head.

If a tornado appears suddenly in close proximity before you can reach shelter; new guidelines released in 2007 from the American Red Cross suggest doing the following:

  • “Buckle your seat belt and try to drive at right angles to the storm movement and out of the path of the tornado.
  • If strong winds and flying debris occur while you are driving, pull over and park, keeping seat belts on and the engine running. Crouch down below the windows, covering your head with your hands and a blanket if possible.”

According to the American Red Cross, follow the same guidelines if you are caught by an approaching tornado with no appropriate shelter. Wooden and pole barns, mobile homes, RV’s and wide open areas are dangerous due to high winds and flying debris. New studies suggest that vehicles, such as sedans and mini-vans, fared better in tornado strength winds than mobile homes, RV’s or poorly reinforced buildings. Getting in a vehicle and seeking shelter is safer than riding out the storm in one of these.

It is a popular and deadly myth that overpasses are safe spots during a tornado. The intense winds of a twister may actually increase when caught in these confined perimeters. When hit straight-on by a tornado, those sheltering in overpasses are often killed or seriously injured by flying objects and intense winds.

As a last resort, if you can’t get to a safe building or away from danger by vehicle, lie in a depression or ditch. Cover your head with your hands. Shut your eyes tightly to keep blowing dust and debris out. According to the NESEC, there is a zero wind speed that occurs very close to the ground of traveling tornadoes. If you are low in a depression or ditch, it’s safer than being upright.

Make sure you aren’t close to any large heavy object (including your vehicle) that may be thrown by the tornado.

This policy change appears to differ from the National Weather Service, who advocates lying in a ditch and evacuating your car- as opposed to staying buckled up and crouching low.  There are numerous accounts of people who remained in their vehicle, only to be picked up or rolled numerous times by gale force winds. Injuries in this case were often significant.

Grave danger exists from blowing debris. Lying in a ditch may be risky due to the potential from this element. However, remaining in your vehicle, (as stated above) present clear hazards during a tornado.

The point remains- the only safe place to be during a tornado is in a sturdy shelter. Use your vehicle only to get to safety or to drive away from severe weather.  Always remember to keep a first aid kit in your vehicle, along with a blanket and flashlight for this and any roadside emergencies.
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