Staying in your car isn't always the best bet. Here's how to stay out of harm's way if you encounter a twister on your journey.

By Dan Nosowitz
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Tornadoes have had a busy spring, with deadly and destructive twisters hitting Missouri, Ohio, and even places on the East Coast, like New Jersey, that don't typically encounter them. Among the scariest places to be when a tornado hits is in your car—but there are ways to protect yourself.

“Tornadoes typically move between 35-45 mph,” says Justin Glisan, the State Climatologist of Iowa. According to The Weather Channel, tornado speeds can increase up to 60 mph at their fastest. That can turn even small projectiles into wildly dangerous missiles. Tornadoes have also been known to flip cars and trucks, send tree branches careening into cars, and even rip parts from vehicles. Tornadoes are no joke, and the first piece of advice should be obvious: if the weather forecast says that a tornado is coming, postpone your travel plans if possible.

But not everyone checks the forecast, and the forecasts aren’t always right, so you may find yourself on the road when you spy a twister off in the distance. So what should you do?

A tornadic storm near Quinter Kansas
Image courtesy of Getty.

1. Drive Away

First of all, don’t try to outrun a tornado; tornadoes move at a rapid and unpredictable pace. If there is minimal traffic, drive away from its path, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, for short). Glisan agrees. “If you see a tornado in the far distance and traffic is light, you may have time to drive away,” says Glisan. “If driving is an acceptable option, you should take right angle routes away from the storm.”

Here's how this works: You can see which direction a tornado is moving if you're far enough away, and you want to drive in a 90-degree direction from that movement. For example, if you notice the tornado moving east, drive north or south to get out of its linear path. You don’t need a compass, either; you can replace the cardinal directions with left, right, forward, and backward. So if you can see the tornado moving from right to left in front of you, turn right back around and drive behind you.

2. Do Not Take Shelter Under an Overpass

Sometimes driving away isn’t an option. Maybe there are no right-angle routes away, or the tornado is too close, or it just doesn’t seem safe to drive. If it turns out you are unable to drive away, the best course of action is to park your vehicle and find a sturdy structure (like a building), says Glisan. 

Parking under an overpass may seem like a logical and safe place to seek shelter from a tornado when you're on the road, but it's actually quite dangerous. Wind bottlenecks as it whips through enclosed spaces like those under an overpass, meaning that the wind speeds are actually much higher there than out in the storm. “You never want to park your car in the exposed levels of a parking garage or under a bridge or overpass,” he says.

3. Get to Low Ground

What should you do if you can’t get away from the tornado or find suitable shelter? Your two safest options are to stay in your vehicle or lay in a ditch (and before you take cover, remember to park your car off of the road; you want to leave it clear for first responders).

“The National Weather Service recommends staying in your vehicle with your seatbelt fastened, putting your head below window level,” says Glisan. You should also cover your head with a blanket or your hands to protect yourself from any broken glass or other projectiles.

Along some highways, there are ditches (dug-out ground that's lower than the actual road level). If you can find a ditch that’s noticeably lower than the road, leave your car, lay down as flat as you can, and cover your head with your hands. Below ground level is a relatively safe place to be since the wind won’t be as strong as above the surface.

One caveat: Tornadoes are often accompanied by a lot of rainfall—and extra rain can lead to flooding or unwanted guests (rodents or snakes, for example) taking up residence in the ditch. If that's the case, you may be safer taking shelter in your vehicle.

Preparation can also be vitally important if you live in a place that’s frequently hit by tornadoes. Glisan recommends keeping a few key items in your car at all times: blankets, a small medical kit, and a portable weather radio that can help you get through a scary situation. First aid kits can range in expense, but even the cheapest model will have the essentials for treating minor cuts, burns, and scrapes (try this All-Purpose First-Aid Kid, $14.17, Amazon). This Emergency Weather Radio ($29.97, Amazon) is certified by NOAA, which means it’ll pick up the important radio stations with weather information. Plus, it takes AA batteries, which you can just toss in the car so you don’t have to worry about charging it up.

Be safe out there–and remember, even if the storm seems like it's a safe distance away, please resist the temptation to chase it down for a photo opp. It's far too risky!

Comments (1)

July 6, 2019
All great tips! I would just add that it would help to watch the weather forecast on TV before going to bed and/or to watch the weather forecast on TV before heading out the next day to drive to work, to go shopping, etc. If you know in advance that there's a chance of rough weather that day, you'll know to keep tabs on it, on your phone, on your computer, on TV or on the radio. Better safe than sorry!!