Driving in stormy weather can put a damper on any road trip. Spring and Summer months are the optimal time for road trips but also for thunderstorms, tornadoes, and flash floods. Vehicles of any kind are horrible places to be when traveling during severe weather. From hail storms to flash floods, here’s what to do when you find yourself driving in stormy weather 1.
Before You Go
Your best plan of action before you head out is to be alert to the possibility of severe storms and tornadoes.
- Check the weather forecast of wherever you’re traveling.
- Turn on weather alerts on your smartphone and try to stay connected. (If you lose service, see tips on radio stations).
- Make a list of radio stations in the areas where you will be traveling that have weather alerts (or local NOAA weather stations). Keep a handheld weather radio in the car—most have built-in NOAA weather radars.
- Keep a highway map or Atlas handy with ones that include the county names and boundaries. Most weather alerts are based on counties, and if you’re driving to a new area and don’t know what country you are driving to, you could potentially be in dangerous territory.
- Delay your trip if severe thunderstorms are in the area you are traveling too or along the path. Check for flash flooding in the area and be careful on the roadways.
Tips for Driving in Stormy Weathers
Wet roads mean slippery roads. Here are some tips to keep yourself safe during heavy downpours.
- Turn your lights on (but not the high beams). The more torrential the rain, the harder it is to see. Turning your lights on can help you maintain visibility while on the road. Also, many states require that headlights be on while it is raining.
- Slow down and turn off cruise control. Try to avoid accidents by slowing down and don’t pass. If the semi-truck drivers are all slowing down, take note. Slowing down also helps to avoid hydroplaning. If you wind up hydroplaning, don’t panic and slam on the breaks or spin the wheel. Take your foot slowly off the brake pedal and calmy keeping steering straight; the car will eventually regain traction.
- Leave plenty of space between you and the car in front of you. Maintain the three-second rule and, if possible, extend this to five seconds. You never know when you may have to slam on your breaks due to a stalled car, truck, or high water. The tires from busses and trucks will also spray up a considerable amount of water and reduce your visibility.
- Pull over during hard downpours. If the rain becomes too heavy to see anything, pull over and wait it out. Turn on your flashers so that other cars will see you.
- Turn around, don’t drown. Excessive rainfall can flood roadways and low water crossings, even on highways. Just one or two feet can cause cars, SUVs and even trucks to float. Don’t crossroads where water is covering the roads. If you can turn around, do so. This may involve crossing grassy medians and such, but it’s better than being swept away. If you must drive through it, proceed slowly and cautiously.
If your car gets swept up in a floor or fast-moving waters, stay calm but get out fast so that you don’t get swept away.
- Unbuckle your seat belt and have any children in the car do so as well.
- Roll down a window. If the windows are not working (such as an electrical shortage due to the flooding), use an emergency escape tool such as emergency hammer or umbrella to break the window.
- Swim out and get to safety.
Also, during your trip, look for signs for low-water crossings and flash flood areas. Some places in central Missouri, for example, have flash flood zone signs. If you plan on visiting one of these areas, triple-check the weather forecast and if it starts to look dark, pick up and head to higher ground (or at least a hotel). Better to be delayed for a few hours than the alternative.
Don’t try to outrun a severe thunderstorm, especially one with strong winds and hail. Tornados can also spawn from these storms, and it is often too dark to see the exact path of the tornado. The best advice is to exit the road and find a sturdy shelter at a truck stop, convenience store, restaurant, etc. Just don’t stop at an overpass; it’s actually one of the most dangerous places in a storm.
Has your car started shaking and the wind picking up? When driving in stormy weather, heavy winds (especially straight line) can be just as deadly as tornadoes.
- Vehicles can be turned over by strong winds. This includes large trucks, tractor-trailers, and recreational vehicles that are more susceptible to high winds. They may have a harder time staying in their lane. Again, watch how the truck drivers are driving. If they slow down, slow down.
- Keep both hands on the wheel in a firm grip in case the wind begins to move your vehicle as you get caught in a gust.
- Get off the road, if possible, and take shelter in a sturdy building. Do not stop under bridges and tunnels and over and underpasses can channel high winds. These winds can make it worse than being out in the open.
Hail are chunks of ice that sometimes starts small and then get as large as baseballs. Large hailstones can break car windshields and dent bodies as they often travel at over 100 mph. If possible, get off the roadway and find shelter under a gas station awning, carwash, or other structure (not an overpass). Then get out of your car and into a nearby sturdy structure. It’s best to leave the road entirely than to pull over.
However, if you’re stuck in your car (it happens), try to park so that the hail hits the front of the car as the windshield is stronger than the side or rear windows. If you have any jackets or pillows in the car, try to cover your face and other exposed body parts. This way if a window does break, the fabric or pillow can offer some protection. Try to get as low as you can, either lying down in the seat, try to avoid having your face directly in front of the windows or windshield.
Do not stop and park under a highway overpass or bridge.
During a lightning storm, stay in your car unless you can quickly get inside of a sturdy structure. If lightning strikes your car, the electrical current will travel through the metal cage to the ground (grounding). It can still move through the car’s electrical system, so try not to touch the radio or any metal parts. If you have a cell phone charging or other device connected to the car, don’t use it.
If the Tornado is far away enough and the road options allow for it, try to find a substantial building for shelter (again, truck stops or large gas stations are good). Follow the basic tornado safety guidelines—get in, get down, cover up. Restaurants, truck stops, convenience stores, everything is better than being on the open road or under a highway overpass or bridge. Again, stay away from overpasses unless you happen to be the Man of Steel.
If you know what direction a tornado is moving, and how fast, try to find a road option to take you out of its path (if it is heading west, and you’re heading southwest, take the next exit and turn around!). Try to drive at a right angle to the movement. However, never try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle. Get out of its path and get to shelter. Just remember that highway overpasses are not tornado shelters and should be avoided.
In a worst-case scenario when traveling during stormy weather, you may be trapped on the road. You’re left with two options.
- If there is no flooding, then leave your vehicle and find shelter in a ditch, culvert, or low spot. Try to get as far away from the vehicle as possible as well as any other potential missiles (such as trees).
- If the ditches or low spots are quickly filling up with water, however, it’s recommended to buckle yourself into the vehicle, cover yourself with whatever blanket or coat is available, and get below the level of the windshield and windows to protect from broken glass and flying debris.
One final note. On the road, pay attention to truck drivers. If you see dark clouds up ahead and a line of trucks exiting the freeway towards a truck stop or gas station, there may be a reason why. During severe weather and hard rain, if a large semi pulls over in the right-hand lane with its lights flashing, it’s probably a signal that it probably too dangerous to drive up ahead or that there may be an accident. If you see a line of cars, don’t try to rush past. You may wind up causing a pile-up. If it is impossible to pass, turn on your emergency hazard lights and try to get as far to the right as possible and park.
Exercise caution when traveling during severe weather. If you find yourself in a dangerous situation that you can’t safely escape, dial 911 for help.
Driving in Stormy Weather Necessities
1 National Weather Service, Severe Weather Safety Tips, at https://www.weather.gov/ama/severesafetytips