Red Cross says you should stay in your car during tornado

A recent publication by the American Red Cross now advocates staying in your car if a tornado is approaching. Honestly, I am not making this stuff up. The image to the left is an excerpt that says to stay indoors with your seat belt on and engine running.

I have been a Meteorologist for eleven years so I hope you value my professional opinion. This advice has got to be some of the most idiotic I have ever heard!

If you want to be devil’s advocate and entertain the idea that vehicles are safe during tornadoes, consider the pictures at the bottom of this post.

The reason why the Red Cross adopted this stance was based on one abstract in the journal of the American Meteorological Society. You can read that by clicking here.

Either later tonight or on Friday I would like to talk about some of your comments on 13News. Please comment with your opinions.

Thank you! -ES

p.s. Am I getting fired up with things lately or what? ;-) mb990124mooretl04

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Posted under severe weather, tornado

This post was written by qni_it on April 30, 2009

25 Comments so far

  1. Chad T April 30, 2009 6:43 PM

    Sounds like a good idea. With a nice sail on the top of the car it should make for a heck of a ride. The impact, and 2×4′s piercing the car wouldn’t be as fun though.

  2. Greg P April 30, 2009 6:51 PM

    Do they recommend staying in trailer parks too?

  3. happyweathergirl April 30, 2009 6:55 PM

    It sounds completely unsafe and makes no sense. Stay in a car but get out of a mobile home?
    How are you supposed to keep your heads down below the windows if you have your seatbelt on? Take off the shoulder strap? I am sure tons of seatbelt data pre 1973 (when it was mandated) to show what happens with that. What about a child in a car seat with a 5 point harness? I would still want to protect my child as much as I could. So I would get out go in a deep ditch and put myself over my child as much as I could.

  4. tony April 30, 2009 7:08 PM

    I agree with you eric, that is most idiotic post there ever was.

  5. frank April 30, 2009 7:15 PM

    Eric, anybody who has been on I-90 w/construction during an average storm knows how hard it is to dodge the flying signs and barrels let alone drive at “right angles” away from the storms. This is a less than brite idea.

    Belvidere spotter.

  6. WI Weather Buff April 30, 2009 9:44 PM

    Okay, I’m going to be the odd one out.

    I think the article makes a lot of sense. They have empirical data to back their claims.

    I think their experiments bear repeating. I think there needs to be testing in wind tunnels, testing of actual vehicles at various wind speeds, etc.

    But look. Most cars could probably go 120 mph without falling apart. That means they’re facing a 120 mph headwind. (I’m not sure how the same vehicles would fare if that same 120 mph wind were hitting them broadside.)

    I think it definitely makes sense to recommend MORE TESTING of this hypothesis (viz: it is safer to be in a vehicle in a tornado than outside lying flat in a ditch).

    Also required is some analysis of how people who have laid flat in a ditch during a tornado actually fared when they did that. I have seen and heard that advice since I was a child – but I honestly don’t remember ever seeing an interview of a storm survivor who said, “Yeah, I got out of my vehicle and laid flat in a ditch just as the tornado was passing overhead.”

    Also, as I recall, the vast majority of tornados are EF0, EF1 and EF2. A strong EF2 will probably damage the car, but I’m not at all sure I’d want to be outdoors “laying flat in a ditch” in one of those either.

    So: what to do before more tests are completed. Well, as a NWS storm spotter who doesn’t deliberately do any storm chasing — but often goes out in stormy weather just to drive around and see what I can observe — I’ve actually thought about this already (always have an exit strategy if you’re driving around looking at severe weather).

    I personally have already decided I’d stay in the car before I’d get out of the car to lay in a ditch.

  7. WI Weather Buff April 30, 2009 9:59 PM

    Just to follow up (since I can’t edit my previous post). You also have to look at what other things are going on in the weather at the same time. Tornados don’t happen in bright sunny weather. There is usually lightning and rain going on, and what about that ditch you’re laying in – will it flood? Are you exposing yourself to lightning, hail, etc.? Who is with you in the car? Babies, toddlers, pets, grandma and grandpa who just had hip replacement surgery? Tornados don’t happen in a vacuum – there’s a whole set of events to take into account, and all in all getting out of the car to lay in a ditch never did seem like the generic right answer (to me).

  8. Carrie in Dixon April 30, 2009 10:10 PM

    I am not convinced by one study that it is safer to be in my vehicle during a tornado..(I have to agree with Wi Weather Buff that I never thought it would be safe to lie in a ditch either.)

    I also agree that more testing needs to be done. I was also thinking it would be helpful to know where these tests are done (we don’t know by the results if the tests were done during actual tornados or if they were simulated..etc), in what elements etc…

    For now..I will be doing my best to find a sturdy building with a basement (if possible) if I am ever caught in a tornado.

  9. Justin Gehrts May 1, 2009 12:22 AM

    WI Wx Buff – sure, cars are buffeted by wind all the time. But how often are you experiencing wind-carried *debris* while driving?

    Tornadoes and even extreme thunderstorm wind gusts (extreme being over 80mph in a fairly concentrated area) can turn stuff into missiles. If a 2×4 punctures the driver’s side door, I don’t think the whole bit about keeping below window level has really helped me a whole lot.

    The more I think about it, the more I have to wonder how somebody (other than one of the yahoo storm chasers) could end up in a situation that would even necessitate these supposed safety rules? How much is that person *not* paying attention to see a tornado?

  10. Garrett May 1, 2009 12:35 AM

    I think all I needed to see was the footage that they showed at the Rockford Airport Weather Spotting Seminar of why it is not safe to be in a car.

    The clip showed a tornado, that ended up being rated either an EF-1 or EF-2, that completley picked up two cars in a parking lot like they were toy cars in Leighton Alabama. This was from a very minor tornado that I don’t think even hit the parking lot head on.

    If you want to see the clip it is on youtube, and then judge for your self how safe it would be.

  11. WI Weather Buff May 1, 2009 4:46 AM

    Okay – so – everybody is concerned about debris puncturing the car. So you would be safer from debris outside with nothing at all to protect you?

    Of course you don’t want to be in a car in the midst of a tornado. But you’d rather be in a ditch NEXT to your car (which could well be picked up and deposited right on top of you)???

    I agree with Justin G. You’d have to be pretty dense to find yourself in that situation in the first place most of the time.

  12. Justin Gehrts May 1, 2009 8:21 AM

    I suppose I don’t have to worry about it too much… if there’s a tornado around, I’ll probably be in the weather center talking about it. :)

  13. Curt Sanders May 1, 2009 8:51 AM

    During a tornado, it is not a good idea to be in anything with MOBILE in its name…..AutoMOBILE…..MOBILE Home..Just my thoughts

  14. D. Bartelt May 1, 2009 10:06 AM

    Having lived in Oklahoma for 15 years, and having survived a tornado in 1990 after just moving there. The newscasters down there say to GET OUT OF THE CAR and go to a ditch or lowest point around you and lay flat. I believe I will follow their advice as they deal with it on a more frequent basis.

  15. Jeff May 1, 2009 10:15 AM

    This is the best advice we have been given since we were all told to buy duct tape & plastic!

  16. Renee May 1, 2009 11:20 AM

    This isn’t something I’ve thought about a lot (I don’t chase storms) but I guess I’d like to know how well people survive lying in ditches before I could evaluate which is the better advice.

    Last summer, my husband and daughter were caught in his truck in the hail storm that preceded the brief tornado touchdown along Hwy 173. Even though the wind was rocking the truck, it did not occur to them to get out of the truck and go lie down outside in the hail.

    So, are there any statistics for people lying in ditches?

  17. Laurie May 1, 2009 5:18 PM

    I would think that if it hit a car broadside
    that it would definitely move it.

    By the way, Eric, that tornado booklet you
    should on the 5 o’clock news looked really
    nice. Can anybody get it?

  18. WI Weather Buff May 1, 2009 7:07 PM

    I saw your “teaser” for the News at 10. I’ll try to stay up that late!

    Don’t get me wrong; I am not trying to argue that a car is a safe place in a tornado. It absolutely is not!

    But this is kind of like those questions like, “You’re on a locomotive speeding toward a washed out bridge. There is no time to stop the train. Do you try to jump off the train before it gets to the bridge?”

    The real answer to this (and I propose, the tornado-car-ditch question as well) is, “Who the Heck knows? They’re all Bad Alternatives. If it ever really happens, who knows what a real person would really do? It probably depends on the particular individual’s own personal instincts at the moment, which is probably as good an answer as any.”

    And the real answer to the “public safety” issue is: Educate people not to get into that situation in the first place. With the vast improvements in forecasting and broadcasting technologies, and with the educational resources at hand, people should learn to (a) take notice of – and heed – watches and warnings issued by NWS, (b) be observant of the weather conditions around oneself, particularly in severe weather, and (c) not get “caught” in that kind of situation in the first place, where the only choices are, lay flat in the ditch while a tornado hits you or sit in your car with the seatbelts on and the engine running while a tornado hits you.

  19. BUB - Belvidere May 1, 2009 8:31 PM

    I agree with Both WI Weather Buff and the old way… here is my arguement.
    In a car you are probably safer from flying debris, BUT you are higher up and possibly a larger target. It’s probably worse to be in a car for getting tossed around. I will also defend people getting caught in a tornado, just use the January tornado of last year, there was minimal warning for that and I suspect it would have been quite easy to get caught by surprise by that one.

  20. tony May 1, 2009 9:04 PM

    I know that if I was in my car and saw a tornado, I would be pulling over and getting out of my car and going to a ditch. My life is more important than a car. I can replace a car, but I cannot replace my life.

  21. Tom Schmidlin May 23, 2009 7:05 PM

    I was co-author on the article cited in the Red Cross statement. Although the link provided by Eric Sorensen does link to only an abstract, clicking on ‘pdf’ above the abstract allows an interested person to actually read the whole article and the results of our several years of field work and wind tunnel work. There are also several older articles cited on our article that date back 20 years, all presenting research showing persons faced less risk of injury and death in vehicles than outdoors in a tornado. The irony is that the long-standing recommendation to get into a ditch for the duration of a tornado warning is NOT supported by any research, yet some want to cling to it. Remember – the recommendations are for actions to take when a tornado warning is issued. Residents of mobile homes who do not have nearby shelter have three choices – stay in the mobile home, take the family outdoors to a lie in a ‘ditch or depression’ for the duration of the warning (NWS), or drive carefully to a pre-arranmged shelter for the duration of the warning (Red Cross). Plenty of research shows the last is the best choice. The Red Cross went with the long body of research. I think if people actually read the research, they would come to the same conclusion. Most mobile home residents, and most highways, do not have deep ditches available anyway.

  22. Jackson November 24, 2010 10:56 PM

    I’ve always thought the ditch theory was bogus. I’ve never heard one survivor talk about lying in a flooding ditch getting beat by hail stones during any storm. So I’ll watch the weather. Take note and try to stay off the roads when severe weather is in the area. But rest assured if a nado comes while I’m out I’d already decided well before this study I was taking my chances in my metal vehicle.

  23. Patrick F. April 18, 2011 12:32 PM

    Very late commenter here but: “2×4′s piercing the car wouldn’t be as fun though.”

    You’d rather they hit you directly? It’s possible, even in a ditch. There’s another reason that it’s not a bad idea to stay in your car. Basic physics (which the author, as a met. should be WELL aware of). If in a vehicle, the vehicle absorbs much of the force applied to it, lessening what you feel directly. If you’re in a ditch, you get 100% of the force applied to you. Eleven years experience as a meteorologist is well and good, but how good of one are you IF you’re unable and unwilling to accept the idea that conventional wisdom changes. Or does the author of this blog post still suggest opening windows to ‘equalise pressure’ as was once recommended?

    Following up to co-author Tom Schmidlin’s comment above, with some information from the article (since I know many people won’t bother to click through):

    The article indicates that the researchers conducted physical surveys of tornado-struck neighborhoods “in seven states over six years.” They evaluated the damage and assigned their own Fujita scale ratings based on their assessment. (“At each home we assigned a Fujita-scale rating by assessing the damage to the structure”). They also spoke to residents of the homes and, if a vehicle had been parked outside during the tornado, “[they] tried to ascertain from residents whether the wind moved the vehicle (>1 m [3.28 feet]) or tipped it over.”

    This resulted in a sample of 291 vehicles (sedans, vans, pickup trucks, and SUVs–trucks other than pickups, buses, RVs, and commercial vehicles were excluded). The results were grouped by F-scale rating. The difference in vehicles moved between F1 and F2 tornados, and between F3 and F4 tornados, was not statistically significant. Between F2 and F3, however, there WAS a statistically significant difference.

    At F1 and F2 sites (with estimated wind speeds off 73-157 mph), 72% of vehicles were NOT moved, and 96% were NOT tipped over. At F3 and F4 sites (158-260 mph), 50% were NOT moved, and 82% were NOT tipped over. This challenges the belief that cars are “lifted off the ground”, as had been suggested in the both original and enhanced Fujita scales (the Fujita scale was revised between 2000 and 2004 but leaves the wording that cars are lifted and thrown at EF3).

    A breakdown of data from the study (F-scale rating, wind speed estimate, # vehicles sampled, % vehicles moved and thrown):
    at F1, est. winds of 73-112 mph, 82 vehicles sampled
    at F2, est. winds of 113-157 mph, 83 vehicles sampled
    % vehicles moved (F1 and F2 combined) 28%
    % vehicles tipped over (F1 and F2 combined) 4%

    at F3, est winds of 158-206 mph, 105 vehicles sampled
    at F4, est winds of 207-260 mph, 21 vehicles sampled*
    % vehicles moved (F3 and F4 combined) 50%
    % vehicles tipped over (F3 ad F4 combined) 18%

    Since the 1970s, the number of those killed by tornados while in a vehicle has decreased from 17% to 10% (as of the late 90s). Comparatively, mobile home residents comprise 45% of tornado deaths. The conventional advice to mobile home residents who lack storm shelters is to lie in a ditch or depression. The research presented here suggests that being in a car is far safer than lying in a ditch. In the authors’ own words: “Although there will be exceptions, it is likely that a person encounters less risk of death while belted into a stationary vehicle than while in a mobile home during severe winds.”

    *the low number of vehicles sampled for F4 tornados is likely due to the relatively low occurrence of tornados of that force.

  24. John9999 April 25, 2011 1:07 AM

    I’ve wondered when someone would start researching whether the traditional vehicle tornado recommendations should be updated.

    Vehicles are much more aerodynamic and incorporate many more crash safety systems than when the traditional recommendations were written. If you leave the engine running, then all of the vehicle safety systems will be online when the tornado hits the vehicle.

    While I don’t think a car is the *ideal* place to be in a tornado, the shielding and modern crash safety systems do seem to provide significant protection.

    Anecdotally, I’ve seen people do much better in newer vehicles than getting out and lying flat in a ditch, as stated in the traditional recommendations. Plus, being in a vehicle gives you a mobility capability that allows you to avoid a direct hit.

    Of course, if you’re driving a “high profile” vehicle, the traditional advice probably still applies.

    I’d be interested to see how this research progresses.

  25. Aaron Perry April 9, 2012 11:46 AM

    If you’re in a mobile park and you have a car parked on a slab of concrete, why not drill in plates to strap the car down? Does anyone think that this might be a viable option?

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