Important Tornado Safety Information while Driving

The general consensus is that 1,200-1,300 tornadoes hit the United States every year, although the actual data is hard to track. Tornadoes cause an average of 60 fatalities and 1,500 injuries annually. The main cause of death is mostly from flying or falling debris. However, the National Weather Service says 9 percent of people killed by tornadoes in the U.S. were driving cars.

Tornadoes occur all year long, but peak season is May to June, with an average of 298 tornadoes in the month of May. According to Dr. Forbes at The Weather Channel, “Every state in the union has had at least one tornado.” Traditionally, we think of tornadoes presenting the most serious risk to “Tornado Alley” which runs through eastern South Dakota, eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and northern Texas. However, everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains runs a higher risk of tornado encounters. High-risk areas shift during different times of the year. March is a high-risk time for the Gulf Coast, April and May affect Tornado Alley states, and June moves north to affect Midwestern and Great Lake states.

According to, most tornadoes occur between 4pm-9pm, but can happen anytime day or night. The Weather Channel states that, “Tornadoes can occur at any time of day, but are more likely from 2 – 7 pm.  In Tornado Alley, very few tornadoes occur in the morning.” The current average lead-time for tornado warnings is 13 minutes. Due to the extremely short warning period, it is very important to know what to do if you are on the road and a twister is near.

Warning signs of a tornado:

According to the CDC, this is a list of warning signs that indicate a possible tornado:

  • A dark or green-colored sky
  • A large, dark, low-lying cloud
  • Large Hail
  • A loud roar that sounds like a freight train

If you think that you may be at risk of a tornado while driving, the first thing you should do is stay calm and turn on your radio. If you have a smartphone, you can check for alerts in your area. Try to find information on whether there is a tornado watch or warning in your area.

Here are the differences between a Tornado Warning and Watch according to

Tornado Watch: Conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms and multiple tornadoes in and around the watch area. People in the affected areas are encouraged to be vigilant in preparation for severe weather.

Tornado Warning: Spotters have sighted a tornado or one has been indicated on radar and is occurring or imminent in the warning area. When a tornado warning has been issued, people in the affected area are strongly encouraged to take cover immediately.

Actions you can take if you are in your car during a tornado:

Find safe shelter:

driving safe - weather - tornadoIf there is a tornado watch or warning in your area, the best thing to do is to find safe shelter as soon as possible. You should find cover in a safe location such as a basement or underground shelter. Avoid gymnasiums, malls, and mobile homes; these types of structures are not built to withstand the force of a tornado. Mobile homes are especially dangerous; you are better off trying to outrun a tornado in your car than stay in a mobile home.

Outrun a tornado with your car:

Most sources state that you should never try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle. Tornadoes are very unpredictable by nature and can change their path in a moment’s notice. Also, you run several other risks while driving near the path of a tornado including heavy rains, flooded roads, hail, and the risk of an accident with other drivers. Even though most tornadoes only travel 30-40 miles per hour, low visibility and road constraints can hinder your ability drive away from the tornado’s path. Use your best judgment for your specific situation. If you can clearly see the spout of a tornado, know the topography of the land, have no access to a safe shelter, and have a clear open road, you may want to try to drive away.

Get out of your car:

Another option is to get out of your car and find a low-lying ditch as far as possible from your vehicle and debris, such as trees. Wind speeds of a tornado are considerably less near the ground. Cover you head with a blanket, or if nothing else, your hands. Head injuries are a common cause of death during tornadoes.

While emergency organizations agree that staying clear of debris is important, there is some discrepancy on when to exit your vehicle. Both the CDC and the Weather Channel recommend that you abandon your car and find shelter in a low-lying ditch as far from potential debris as possible. In fact, the CDC says, “The least desirable place to be during a tornado is in a motor vehicle. Cars, buses, and trucks are easily tossed by tornado winds.” However, the Red Cross released information that makes a distinction on when to exit your car. The Red Cross suggests that if you are driving, unable to find a safe shelter, and flying debris is present, then you should pull your vehicle over. According to you should, “Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering your head with your hands and a blanket if possible.  If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.”

TIP: If you cannot find lower ground in a ditch and decide to stay in your vehicle, leave the car running so your airbags will work in the case of an impact.

NEVER climb under something like a bridge or your car for cover: NO!!! DO NOT seek cover under a bridge, embankment or your vehicle; this is very dangerous and will greatly increase your risk of injury or death. You need to stay clear of anything that can become debris or could collapse. If you are outside during a storm, the safest place is in a low-lying ditch.

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