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Driving Safely in Sudden Extreme Conditions

When an Emergency Arises, Here's What To Do

When forecasts call for a hazardous change in the weather, meteorologists issue warnings to stay off the road and seek shelter immediately. Weather alert apps make it easier than ever to avoid driving in dangerous conditions, or to get caught in storms, such as hurricanes and blizzards. The Red Cross has apps for specific dangerous weather situations you might encounter. Weather Underground offers apps for Android and iOS devices. The National Weather Service lets you easily add its mobile site to your device's home screen.

But Mother Nature sometimes takes even the best informed and prepared of us by surprise. Here's expert advice on what to do if you get caught on the road in the following short-warning, extreme weather and natural disaster scenarios:

On average, more than 1,000 tornadoes touch down in the United States each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The majority of these occur in the part of the south central Plains states known as "Tornado Alley" and along Gulf Coast states, known as "Dixie Alley." In recent years, states outside these areas (usually ones without warning systems) have been struck by tornadoes, with fatal results. Regardless of where you live, understanding when and why tornadoes form can help you stay alive while you drive.

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What to look for: Supercell thunderstorms often produce tornadoes, strong downdrafts or straight-line winds and large, damaging hail.

"Large, damaging hail can be a warning sign that you are way closer than you should be to a possible tornado," says Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist with NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Other signs to look for may include an increasingly dark, ominous-looking sky, increasing winds and heavy clouds that appear lower and lower on the horizon. Lightning usually occurs with tornadoes, as these storms are often electrically charged, but not always.

What to do: Most tornadoes move from southwest to northeast. "If you are driving north and you see a tornado to your west, you probably do not want to continue to drive north," says Carbin. "This basic understanding of meteorology can go a long way to protecting you in the event that you are facing something like this."

To escape the tornado's likely path, take the nearest exit perpendicular to it. "What you want to do is put the greatest distance between you and the tornado. So you want to move at right angles away from the threat," Carbin says.

If you are caught in a tornado's path with flying debris, the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service recommend that you pull off the road, but leave your car running so the airbags will work. Keep your seatbelt on, lower your head below the windows and cover it with your hands and a blanket or extra clothing, if available.

If you can safely get significantly below the level of the roadway, in a depression or ditch, the weather service recommends that you leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. But the agency also cautions that this is a last resort, depending on individual circumstances, and your safest bet is still to drive to a shelter, if possible.

As with all these recommendations, you'll have to make split-second decisions for yourself, Carbin says. "If the wind is going to twist your car off the road, you don't have the option of getting out of it. You probably don't even want to," he says. "In a modern vehicle with airbags and seatbelts, you're probably in a better position than if you were to leave the vehicle."

What not to do: Never seek shelter under an overpass or bridge. "What you don't want to do is put yourself in a position where the winds are actually enhanced by the tornado. Essentially most overpasses do not offer adequate protection. And as the wind passes through the underpass, it can be strengthened by the constriction," Carbin says.

Parking under an overpass or bridge can also create a traffic jam, further putting you and other motorists at risk. "If you have to stop your vehicle, you want to get it off the road so it doesn't pose a hazard to other drivers," he says. Carbin suggests finding a large parking lot or other open area, away from potential flying debris.

Never chase a tornado. "It's unfortunate that we have a large segment of society now conditioned to think that you can drive right up to these things," Carbin says, citing the proliferation of storm-chaser reality shows and news organizations' mobile weather teams. They may make it look safe, but it's highly dangerous. In May 2013, two experienced storm chasers were killed in their vehicle during a tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma. A storm chaser's son also died.

Dust Storms
In the desert Southwest, particularly in Arizona and New Mexico, thunderstorms can produce blinding dust storms. Though dust storms can occur at any time of year, the most likely time is during the region's monsoon season, from June 15 to September 30.

What to look for: When thunderstorms are developing and when they are dying out, they send a rush of cold air toward the desert floor. The rushing air pushes dust into a cloud, forming a wall known as a haboob. The result is often little or no visibility for drivers, as shown in this video from the Arizona Department of Transportation.

"Dust storms can develop very quickly," says Doug Nintzel, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation. "It's important that drivers keep their eye on the horizon, looking for any sign of a dust storm, because that's when you should be taking action to exit the highway and wait the storm out, rather than pushing ahead and hitting the storm."

What to do: In recent years, motorists who ignored warning signs and headed into dust storms wound up in chain-reaction crashes along Arizona highways. That prompted the state's transportation department to develop a comprehensive safety awareness campaign. "Our top recommendation is to avoid driving into or through a dust storm," Nintzel says.

If you suddenly find yourself in a dust storm, follow the three "offs" of the department's "Pull Aside, Stay Alive" campaign.

  • First, turn off all your lights. "You don't want drivers thinking you're the car to follow as they are making their way through the dust," Nintzel says.
  • Second, pull completely off the pavement. "You want to do so as quickly as possible, but it's important to pull as far off the highway pavement as possible," Nintzel says. This will help you stay out of any chain-reaction crashes.
  • Third, after pulling off the road, put on your parking brake, but take your foot off the brake pedal. That way, your brake lights are not illuminated and other motorists will not follow the light and drive into you. Don't put on any interior lights or emergency flashers either, Nintzel advises.

"Dust storms tend to pass by rather quickly," he says. "So this is the best advice we can suggest: Keep your seatbelt on and be prepared to wait out the storm."

Flash Floods
Flash floods occur when streams rise above creek or river banks following heavy rainfall, rapid snowmelt and related dam breaks or levee failures and flow onto adjacent land and roadways. Flash flooding usually occurs within two to six hours of downpours, snowmelt or dam and levee failures. Nearly half of all flash-flood deaths occur in vehicles, killing motorists who attempted to drive through the flooded roadway, according to the National Weather Service.

What to do: If you come upon a flooded roadway, back up and find another way to your destination, says Mike Calkins, manager, technical services, and an expert in vehicle technology and safety with AAA's Florida office. The National Weather Service mantra for flash floods is: "Turn Around. Don't Drown."

What not to do: Never drive through flowing water or flooded roadways. "Moving water has a tremendous amount of energy. Trying to ford a river is never a good idea," Calkins says.

Just 6 inches of water can flood the bottom of most passenger vehicles, causing you to stall or lose steering control, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A foot of water will float many vehicles. Two feet of water can carry most vehicles, including SUVs and pickups, down a roadway or push them over a bridge and into the dangerous flowing creek below.

Rising water can quickly inundate your vehicle. If you get caught in a flooding car, the escape route is through the windows, not the doors, and your best chance at survival comes while the car is still floating (30 seconds to 2 minutes) and before it begins to sink. University of Manitoba researcher Gordon Giesbrecht has studied vehicle submersion and outlines a four-step escape procedure:

  • Take your seatbelts off immediately.
  • Open or break your window. To break a window, Giesbrecht recommends a tool called the Resqme.
  • Get small children in the front seat with you.
  • Get out through the windows, pushing children out first.

Standing water can also cause your car to hydroplane, leading to a loss of steering and braking ability, Calkins says. It can also hide damaging potholes, especially after the winter months.

Blinding Rain and Dense Fog
Torrential downpours can come with short warning, especially in summer. Fog can create low- or zero-visibility conditions that make driving hazardous.

What to do: When heavy rain or fog catches you by surprise, the first thing you should do is slow down. "A lot of the advice is just common sense. Slow down. Be patient. Allow extra time to get to your destination," says AAA's Calkins.

Allow yourself enough space so you can stop safely. "That may mean going 5 or 10 miles an hour," says Calkins. "If the roads are slippery and they have water on them, your stopping distances are going to increase."

Also, keep your distance from other motorists, particularly larger vehicles and semi-trucks, whose large wheels can throw a lot of spray onto your windshield, making visibility difficult.

When it comes to blinding rain and dense fog, you want to see and be seen, AAA recommends. "You have to have good vision, and you have to do whatever you can to make your vehicle conspicuous to other motorists on the road," says Calkins.

While Florida law requires motorists to turn on their headlights during rain, not all states do.

Regardless of the law, the best advice for both blinding rain and dense fog is to put headlights on low beam, Calkins says. Front foglamps can also increase your visibility. "They definitely help by producing a lower, flatter beam of light on the road's surface that helps you pick out road markings, Calkins says.

If you have rear foglights, which are standard in many higher-end cars from European makers, put those on as well. "What they are is an extra bright set of taillights that are more easily visible by the cars behind you," explains Calkins.

And if you have a pair of polarized sunglasses handy, put those on. "It doesn't work with every pair of sunglasses, and not the real dark ones. But a light tint or yellow-tinted driving glasses can sometimes help with your visual acuity under these driving conditions," Calkins says.

To avoid fogged windows inside your car during heavy rainfalls, run the heat and air-conditioning simultaneously. "That combination will defrost your window really well," says Calkins. "It will dehumidify the air coming into the car so it will help eliminate condensation."

Rolling down the window while driving in fog may help you hear what you can't see. "Today's cars tend to be very quiet," says Calkins. "Rolling down the window might give you more information to what's happening out there. If you hear squealing or crunching noises, you should definitely put on the brakes."

In these zero-visibility situations, finding a safe spot to pull off the road — with at least a 2-foot clearance — remains the best advice, he says. "Better to make it to your destination late than to not make it."

What not to do: Don't put on your high beams, which can scatter light and bounce it off rain and fog droplets, further decreasing your visibility and blinding oncoming motorists. And don't put on your four-way flashers/emergency lights, which are illegal to use in most of the country as you drive. Put on your emergency flashers only when you've pulled safely off the road.

Earthquakes don't come with weather warning signs. Seismologists cannot predict when the next quake will hit or where.

California's San Andreas Fault is the most infamous one in the United States, stretching from Northern California southward to the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County and causing thousands of small, often unnoticeable earthquakes there each year.

But fault lines also exist under other parts of the United States. A 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro area in 2011, causing significant damage to the Washington Monument and National Cathedral. In January 2014, researchers reported that the New Madrid fault line, a 150-mile zone along the Mississippi Valley, is active and could spawn a large earthquake in the future. And the U.S. Geological Survey issued an updated federal seismic hazard map in July 2014, noting that parts of 16 states have the highest risk for earthquakes: Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky and South Carolina.

If you are driving, you may not feel the tremors from a small quake, says April Kelcy, an earthquake safety consultant and owner of Earthquake Solutions in Irwindale, California. If you do feel a quake, be warned: It may be a precursor to a larger one. What will it feel like? "Those who have driven in earthquakes have said it felt like driving on four flat tires," Kelcy says.

One of the biggest hazards from being on the road during an earthquake is the inability to control steering. "A lot of people actually get dizzy, disoriented and motion sick." Those sensations also make it hard for a driver to control the car, Kelcy says.

What to do: Concentrate on your steering and the traffic situation around you, says Kelcy, who serves as a spokesperson for, a consortium of earthquake experts from education, government and private industry.

"The biggest mistake most people make in an urbanized environment like the Los Angeles region is to worry more about the earthquake than the traffic around them," Kelcy says. "Many drivers will begin to move even more unexpectedly than usual because many won't at first recognize what is happening. Others may panic."

Once you can do so safely, pull over and park your vehicle, preferably in a parking lot or other open area. Avoid parking under or on bridges or overpasses. Try to get clear of trees, light posts, signs and power lines. If there are hazards that can't be avoided, the driver and passengers should assume an airplane crash position, hands over heads and bent over, Kelcy says.

Tune into your car radio or smartphone weather app for the latest updates and avoid driving into unknown dangers once the quaking stops.

What not to do: Don't get out of your car, at least for an hour. Dangerous aftershocks are likely to occur in rapid succession following the initial quake and your vehicle still offers you the best protection against falling debris, Kelcy says.