There are numerous shows on TV, like on Discover Channel or the Weather Channel, that glorify storm chasing. They make it look so fun and cool to be out racing down the highway trying to get right up next to a monster tornado. Despite being pelted with hail stones, flying branches, torrential rain, and lighting, the vehicles press on with a sense of immortality. As we all know, TV shows don’t always portray the whole story. Certainly when it comes to tornado safety, these chasers often push the limits way beyond comprehension.
Be that as it may, there is an ongoing debate and uncertainty about what is the best course of action if you are in a vehicle with an approaching tornado to deal with. The conventional wisdom when I was growing up and even during the first decade of my weather forecasting career was that one should always leave the vehicle and go lie flat in a ditch or ravine and cover your head. Over the past 15 years there have been some high profile cases where people were actually severely injured or killed by leaving their vehicles and going under overpasses or just going out in the open. Now there is more of a recommendation to use your best judgement based on a number of factors whether to leave your car or not. Below is a statement from Roger Edwards of the Storm Prediction Center that goes into more depth on this subject.
In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely risky in a tornado. There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Seek shelter in a sturdy building, or underground if possible. If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible — out of the traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion if possible. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway,leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.
We’ve all seen the horrific images of vehicles twisted around tree trunks 20 feet in the air, or turned upside down and crushed. Or how about the photos of beams or lumber jabbed straight through a car window or door. What a horrible thing if someone was in that vehicle in such cases. I wish I had a hard and fast rule for you when it comes to automobiles and tornadoes. I hope you never have to make such a tough decision but if you do, try not to panic. Take care.