A recent 2018 severe storm is one of thousands of examples of people being distracted by anything, not just cell phones. The dangers of severe storms go far beyond tornadoes and storm chaser surges. We can’t legislate common sense because it’s a lifelong education issue that one must learn early and apply in their lives. A little rain, wind, and small hail sent numerous drivers into a panic, causing one crash after another (see our video). We captured at least one car accident, as soon as the heavy rain and small hail started. It doesn’t take a tornado to kill people on the road and personal responsibility is the key to survival. Before all the talk about storm chaser surges and traffic accidents starts this year, let’s talk about distracted driving without all of the exaggeration and anti-cell phone rhetoric.
Why More Accidents Today?
The Federal Highway Administration estimates at least 112 million US drivers were licensed in 1972. By 2017, this number would grow to over 212 million licensed drivers. The scientist in me has to point out that these numbers obviously don’t include all of the people driving without licenses (and there are probably a lot across the states). More drivers result in increased risk. Many people have poor driving education or habits, which only means they present a higher risk when any kind of distraction is introduced. Some people already have poor decision-making capacity and are easily distracted. If it isn’t a cell phone, it’s something else.
People can be distracted by anything on a perfectly clear day. Sunlight comes to mind? Imagine how much worse things get during storms.
It’s critical to not panic during any kind of weather conditions that make it stressful or harder to drive.
Recently, ULTRA TechLife did some storm chasing to test a new mobile software data service. A few tornado warning were issued, but no tornadoes were occurring. Some dime and penny size hail could be seen in our video. Countless times, sensational media coverage and poor critical thinking send people into a panic during something as common as a heavy rain storm. There was hail, but this wasn’t going to kill anyone. If anything, when the weather is bad it should mean you exercise more caution than normal. Drive a little slower, look around more often, anticipate problems and avoid them.
Check out this video in 4K high-definition. It’s a short video, but you can see how a car accident can happen in a matter of seconds during a minimal severe storm. There was no tornado, just public panic, distraction, and poor decisions. Five other car accidents within minutes of each other will be shown in Alonzo’s meteorology courses.
In Florida, it’s a difficult place to do any storm chasing. You’re very limited because of visibility and traffic. However, if you can find an empty parking lot away from the city, you might be able to observe storms with some higher level of safety. Radar software showed a small hail core 10 minutes to the west. The roads would be a bad place to be once this thing got to Orlando. Pulling of the highway and into a gas station to get some gas and then wait for 5 minutes, the storm arrives. The hail starts and almost immediately the sound of metal and plastic crashing into another mass could be heard. It’s a familiar sound for those that have been driving long enough.
2018 Storm Chase Season
There’s always talk of storm chasers flooding roads during the spring severe weather season. We’re coming up to another storm chasing season and there’s bound to be car accidents and media coverage. For many states, April and May are the top months for tornadoes. But we have to understand some more context behind severe storms and cars. We have to start with basic some facts: there will always be thunderstorms and there will always be people on the road. This is also why it’s so important for people to take personal responsibility.
People either aren’t paying attention or something causes them to react out of blind fear.
Many other things are more relevant than cell phones, when it comes to driving in the United States. For example, drunk driving still kills more people than cell phones. ULTRA TechLife previously wrote about the statistics that show cell phone while driving statistics are flawed and shouldn’t be a top priority. There are numerous other distractions that are more common. If it wasn’t a cell phone, it would be turning around to talk to someone, reading a book, adjusting the radio or air conditioner, picking up something you dropped, eating that cheese burger, and the list goes on. These aren’t as exciting or cash-producing as cell phones, so they don’t get a lot of attention.
In 2013, there were news headlines widely discussed the deaths of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young, three people that were so distracted that they basically drove into a deadly tornado. Tim was a veteran storm chaser and many people say a lot of people made bad decisions that day. The truth is, we are all responsible for our own actions, we cannot reduce all risk, and sometimes bad things happen. Like many others, Tim was willing to take risks, but most of them were calculated, somewhat responsible decisions. He survived all of the risks, until the last risky thing he did: got too close. As you can see, even veterans make mistakes, but it should be rare – and hopefully it will continue to be rare. There was a huge focus on “getting too close” to tornadoes by the media, but this is misplaced attention.
The real story is distracted driving in general. Severe storms only increase the risk of accidents.
In 2017, three storm chasers died, involving at least one person running a stop sign. Sometimes there are a few storm chasers that value getting close or video over the safety of themselves and others, an unfortunate reality in today’s sensational news-hungry market. Much of the media considers nearly anyone with a camera that’s out driving in a storm – a storm chaser.
To be fair, there have been plenty of videos that show camera crews and storm chasers acting unsafe while driving. Some have been seen running traffic lights, stop signs, speeding over 100mph, and performing unsafe passing activities – most of this behavior occurs without any immediate tornado threat. Again, it’s not a tornado that presents the highest risk of death, it’s simply being on the road. Storm chasers represent a very small percentage of the general public. Unfortunately, the definition of storm chaser isn’t what it might have been back in the 1990s. Today, a storm chaser is literally anyone on the road during a storm that has a cell phone. Camera crews, people on vacation, construction workers, literally anyone out is passing as a storm chaser. This is certainly dangerous, but the bigger picture is clear: the general public driving unsafe, distracted by more than cell phones, and the fact that this happens on clear days – without thunderstorms or tornadoes.
It wasn’t even a tornado that killed storm chaser Andy Gabrielson back in 2012, it was a drunk driver that was apparently also driving the wrong way.
It’s not storm chasers, it’s the general public. Everyone one the road has a personal responsibility for their own safety and the due regard for the safety of others. No amount of legislation is going to force personal responsibility or common sense, if someone doesn’t already use it.
The Department of Transportation has numerous survey estimates as to why people drive. A majority of people obviously used densely populated urban roads. As you can imagine, this is going to be a huge problem for any kind of severe weather. You have thousands of people in a little spot. A traffic jam during an incoming tornado could kill a lot of people – and it may happen one day soon. It’s possible that even sensational media coverage of an incoming tornado could cause mass panic. Besides tornadoes, any hail event usually causes a panic.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, most people travel for family, personal, and recreational purposes. Traveling to and from work is on down the list of reasons for driving. A majority of traffic jams are obviously in major cities. If a tornado hit these specific spots during rush hour, it would be a major event we would never forget.
People panic in heavy rains and hail. If you’re not used to it and don’t know what to do, the reduced visibility and sound of hail hitting your car also tends to scare people. If they’re already prone to attention and distraction problems, their risk is exponentially higher for crashes. Rather than slow down or stop, some even decide to drive down the wrong way, speed, and behave as if nobody else is on the road. One of the stupidest and deadliest things you could ever do on a major highway during a heavy thunderstorm: drive the wrong way.
It would only take one significant tornado hitting a traffic jam to be a mass casualty event. Storm chasers are not to blame for this, it’s everyone on the road, and it’s a part of life. We know that there are more drivers than ever before and that most of them are on major highways during peak severe thunderstorm hours. We could make the argument that at least storm chasers have minimal severe weather training that helps them stay away from the immediate path of deadly tornadoes, reducing their risk. Does the general public know what to do, if they are in a car during a tornado or large hail?
Forget storm chasers. What if a major tornado occurred during the typical rush hour traffic jam? Check out this video and ask yourself how many people you think were on the road at this time. How many would die? It’s only a matter of time before something like this happens. Panic and distracted driving will combine to produce deadly results.
There were numerous radio show hosts telling people to go under bridges during the tornado warning. Pea size hail isn’t going to cause catastrophic damage to a modern vehicle. Yet there was still panic. This is just another example that the media and general public are still not educated and practicing in the area of severe weather safety. You don’t want to be under a bridge during a tornado because the winds accelerate. Besides, there will be a traffic jam and you will likely find yourself stuck before you even reach the bridge. These were not storm chasers with experience driving in severe storms, these were the general public clogging the streets in a panic. It was a dangerous scene and there were numerous accidents as a result.
It’s only a matter of time before something really bad happens because of poor driving behavior. Poor decisions aren’t just coming from the general public.
In fact, one could argue that law enforcement should not be shutting down major routes during a tornado event because it blocks the escape routes for countless people, possibly causing them to die. Closing roads when it’s safe is more reasonable, not during an event where people are trying to escape. This is another issue that may become huge news, once someone traps people trying to escape in a road block. What if everyone at the road block was killed? Who’s responsible? These are things we should be thinking about before it happens.
Tips to Stay Safe
Your best bet to remain safe is to avoid being on the roads during inclement weather. That’s not always possible for most people. Learn about severe storms by taking a storm spotter training course (free to the public). You can always stay informed about the location of storms, avoiding them, if possible. Otherwise, never seek shelter under an overpass during a tornado or hail storm. Nobody wants their car to be damaged, but you’re better off just filing a claim, if there is hail damage. You can remain inside your car, find an exit ramp, parking lot and just sit and wait for the hail to stop. Never speed up in hail, especially anything larger than dime size.
If a tornado occurs, find a ditch, lie flat, and cover your head. Be aware of potential flooding. Never remain in a car during a tornado. Again, never seek shelter under an overpass because the winds accelerate. If you know how and you can do so safely, you can attempt to escape a tornado by moving away from its path at right angles. If a tornado is moving northeast, move southeast of it. Beware that traffic jams or bad road networks could prevent you from escaping a tornado. Always act with safety in mind, especially with due regard for the safety of others. Anticipate that others will panic and not pay attention during heavy thunderstorms. Avoid distracted drivers by increasing the distance from them, move to another lane, pass them, slow down, etc. You must pay close attention and be more aware during heavy thunderstorm activity. Visibility will be reduced and that means less time to decide.
Be safe out there. Let’s recognize that distracted driving isn’t a matter of cell phones. Some people are prone to distraction and should not be multitasking while driving. Inclement weather means the risk goes way up. We cannot legislate common sense. Finally, storm chasers are a small percentage of traffic. Combating distracted driving means a matter of the general public increasing their safe driving awareness, driver education, and due regard for the safety of others.