In the U.S. alone, tornadoes are responsible for over 1,500 injuries and 80 deaths each year. They can level homes, send cars flying, and cause vast destruction in just a few minutes. If you live in a part of the country that experiences seasonal tornadoes, you may already have a home emergency plan: move to an underground shelter, avoid windows, cover yourself with a mattress. But what if you’re behind the wheel when the telltale funnel forms? Vehicles are especially vulnerable to tornado damage, and driving a car during one should be avoided at all costs. But if you find yourself on the highway when that whirling column of air strikes, here’s what you should do.

First: be aware of the warning signs

With today’s modern Doppler, sensor, and satellite weather technology, the average warning time given before a tornado strikes is about 13 minutes. 

Here are the most common tornado warning signs to be aware of:

  • A tornado watch or warning from the National or Local Weather Service
  • A period of heavy rain or large hail that’s quickly followed by a noticeable wind shift (it may become eerily calm or winds may quickly accelerate)
  • Swirling dust, debris or other ground particles under dark or even green-hued cloudy skies
  • A strong, continuous, funnel-like rotation or lowering at the base of the cloud layer
  • Thunder-like roaring and loud rumblings that don’t stop
  • Flashing lights close to the ground (at night, this might indicate snapping power lines)

Drive away from its path 

Experts warn against trying to outpace a tornado in your vehicle. Instead, move at right angles and away from the tornado’s path (i.e. if the tornado is moving in an easterly direction, drive to the south).

If possible, seek shelter   

Recommended shelters include: buildings with basements or safe rooms, truck stops, convenience stores, or restaurants. Once inside the structure, try to get to the lowest area of it (like a cellar), or into a room without windows. But take note: the Red Cross cautions against going into a mobile home during a tornado event. They consider it to be a “high-risk structure” compared to sturdy buildings and even vehicles.

Do not take cover under an overpass or bridge 

Sheltering in your car under a structure like an overpass is cautioned against. It offers little additional safety and actually presents other problems for motorists, like blocking routes for emergency vehicles.

If you must remain in your car…

Staying inside your vehicle during a tornado should be a last resort. But if you’re stuck, take the following precautions:

  • Buckle your seat belt.
  • If winds are high and debris is flying near you, pull the car over and park on a shoulder or out of the traffic lanes.
  • Get your head low (ideally below the line of your windshield and/or windows) and cover it with your hands and something soft (like a blanket or seat cushion).

In the aftermath…

  • Stay calm and listen for news or instructions from emergency personnel.
  • Keep clear of downed power lines.
  • Avoid entering damaged buildings or housing.
  • Abstain from using lighters or matches for any reason (broken gas lines could case an explosion).

Be sure you’re prepared before, during, and after the events of a tornado. Check out the Esurance Tornado Safety Guide.

Safe and smart | Car safety

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about Rebecca

Rebecca is a freelance copywriter and editor living in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two kids. She enjoys productively channeling her anxiety into safety-minded articles for home and garden, running with her robot trainer, and advocating on behalf of the Oxford comma.