Should You Ever Park Under an Overpass During a Tornado?

A bridge or overpass isn't going to protect you. In fact, they make you even more vulnerable.
The open road is the last place you want to be during a tornado.
The open road is the last place you want to be during a tornado. / Buena Vista Images/Photodisc via Getty Images

There aren’t many severe weather events that prompt as much concern as a tornado, a column of high winds that can cause massive and immediate destruction.

Intuitively, people seek shelter. If they’re driving, that may mean feeling an urge to park under an overpass or bridge. But is that really the best decision?

The answer, according to experts, is no. Speaking with news outlet KFOR in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, meteorologist Aaron Brackett cautioned against viewing such structures as safe—especially as tornado winds can actually increase underneath bridges. A tornado with winds moving at 100 mph can increase to 150 mph if air is being forced through a narrow area.

The fact that people may have the same idea only compounds the danger. “All it takes is a couple more vehicles doing the same exact thing and all of the sudden, you have a roadblock,” Brackett said, explaining how the underpass on a four-lane road can quickly “become a parking lot and everyone is at risk.”

Tornadoes can also decimate such structures, causing falling debris while cars and passengers are immobile underneath. All things considered, stopping under an overpass can be a fatal mistake. KFOR even cited a 1999 tornado in which residents were killed owing to their choice of shelter.

This advice is echoed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which also noted that half of survey respondents thought seeking an overpass was a good idea. FEMA also cautions against parking under trees, which are also unlikely to provide any protection.

What You Should Do While Driving in a Tornado’s Path

According to the National Weather Service, the safest place to be during a tornado event is indoors—ideally the basement of a building or a tornado shelter. Don’t look for sheds or mobile homes, as they lack the necessary support to endure high winds. Truck stops or convenience stores are a better option.

If you’re driving, your aim should be to get out of your car and into one of these structures: Get off the road (without blocking traffic) and find suitable shelter. If no building is nearby, you might be able to mitigate injury by staying in your car, keeping your seatbelt on and windows closed, and remaining low to the floor to avoid being hurt by broken glass. Leaving your vehicle and lying in the lowest spot to avoid flying debris and cars should be a last resort, since you’d be putting yourself at significant risk for injury.

Outrunning a tornado isn’t going to happen, but it may be possible to drive away from a tornado if you know its directional path. If it’s moving east, for example, you can drive to the south. But you’re far better off indoors.

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