What to Do if You're Driving When a Tornado Forms

What to Do if You are Driving When a Tornado Strikes
Daniel Rodriguez/Flickr Creative Commons

One of the most dangerous weather events in the Midwestern and Southern United States, a tornado can form rapidly and leave an erratic and deadly path of destruction. Tornadoes kill 70 people and injure 1,500 more every year in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

People who live in areas where tornadoes occur frequently are accustomed to tornado warnings and know what to do in the event of an emergency, but what if you are on a road trip and in your car when a tornado hits?

Where and When Tornadoes Occur

In the United States, tornadoes occur mainly east of the Rockies. A majority of the tornadoes happen in a large swath of the country called Tornado Alley, which stretches from northwest Texas across the Midwest states of Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and into Tennessee. Not generally included within Tornado Alley but also known for considerable tornado activity are Minnesota, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. A tornado that forms over the ocean is called a waterspout.

Though more rare outside of the South and Midwest, tornadoes can happen in any region of the U.S. Most tornadoes occur in the spring and fall, but they can happen any time of year.

Warning Signs of a Tornado 

Tornadoes can occur at any hour, but usually strike during the late afternoon and early evening (3 pm to 9 pm). They generally last less than 10 minutes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests motorists seek shelter immediately under the following conditions:

  • Dark, often greenish sky
  • Wall clouds or an approaching cloud of debris
  • Sighting of a funnel cloud not in contact with the ground
  • Large hail, often without accompanying rain
  • Loud roar that sounds like a train

​Dos and Don'ts When Driving in a Tornado

  • Don't try to outrun a tornado in your car.
  • Do stay tuned to weather reports on the radio or use the Tornado Warning App from the American Red Cross.
  • Do pull over and evacuate your vehicle but do not hide under your car.
  • If there is no available shelter, do find the nearest ditch or low-lying area and lie flat on the ground, covering your head with your arms.
  • Don't park under an underpass. Winds from a tornado can accelerate through an underpass, making it a potentially more dangerous place than out in the open.
  • Do seek out shelter in a sturdy structure such as a bank, fast food restaurant, or any building with windowless rooms. Hide in a basement or first-floor interior room such as a bathroom, bank vault, or restaurant kitchen/cooler area.

What Causes Tornadoes

Tornadoes can form suddenly when there is a severe thunderstorm warning in effect. It takes a special set of atmospheric conditions to provide an environment favorable for the development of tornadoes, so it's important to pay very close attention to weather reports.

A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for severe thunderstorms, which could produce tornadoes. 

A tornado warning means that a tornado funnel has been sighted or is imminent based on radar.

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