Tornado Week: What to Do If You Get Caught on the Road

Since Kicking Tires last advised readers five years ago on what to do if they encounter a tornado while driving, the winds of change have kicked up quite a dust storm to cloud the issue. Meteorologists, severe-weather experts and safety advocates have found themselves vehemently at odds with one another since the Red Cross in 2009 changed its position on whether to stay in, or seek shelter anywhere but, a car in a tornado. The answer? It depends. What is clear is that now is a good time to learn how to survive a tornado if you're caught on the road.

According to USA Today, this year's tornado count was off to a slow start with only 155 twisters reported so far nationwide (resulting in two deaths), compared with the annual average of 286 by this time of year. However, this is all expected to change as we move into the heart of peak severe-weather season — mid-April through May — when the tornado threat is the greatest. In conjunction with this volatile time, The Weather Channel is promoting its twister-fixated Tornado Week programming all week.

Where's the safest place if you're caught on the road during a twister? There are a lot of variables behind the answer. The logic behind getting the heck away from your car in a twister is sound. Cars — like that tornado deathtrap, the mobile home — are not anchored to the ground and can easily be flipped by winds, scooped up entirely and bombarded with debris. But according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center and the Red Cross' Tornado Safety Checklist, when faced with a scenario that offers no "safe" choices, you must make your own calls based on your circumstances.

"If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible — out of the traffic lanes," the SPC advises. "Stay in the car with the seatbelt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion if possible."

In scenarios in which you think you have a broader range of options, the SPC advises:

  • If the tornado is visible but far away, and traffic is light, you may be able to safely drive out of its path by taking a right angle away from the twister; determine which direction it's moving, face your body that way and then head to the right from there.
  • If you can get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway without being injured by flying debris, leave your car and lie down in that area, covering your head with your hands.
  • Seek shelter in a sturdy building or underground if possible.
  • Never seek shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection from flying debris.

After the storm passes, SPC advises keeping your party together to wait for emergency personnel to arrive; carefully rendering aid to the injured; staying away from power lines and nearby puddles that could be carrying electricity; watching your step to avoid broken glass or other hazards; staying out of damaged structures that could be in danger of collapsing; and refraining from using matches or lighters in case of leaking fuel nearby.

The most tornado-prone area in the U.S., "Tornado Alley," is often defined as the Great Plains region — a north-south-oriented region centered on northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana and the areas east of the Rockies (excluding New England states, New Jersey and Delaware) are also heavy contributors to the annual twister tally, according to

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News Editor Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers.  Email Matt