June 24, 2011 at 1:31 PM ET
You're blissfully hurtling down a desolate stretch of interstate at 70 mph, singing along with your iPod. The scenery is spectacular, the sun is shining, and things couldn't be better. Then you round a bend and suddenly the sky turns midnight black. There's lightning and a thunderclap that feels like it comes from your back seat. There's a trickle of rain, followed seconds later by a downpour, then hail. The highway isn't desolate any more, as you've caught up to all other drivers who are crawling along at 10 mph because they can barely see 50 feet. What do you do?
Many U.S. adults do exactly the wrong thing, contradicting the advice given by the National Weather Service and potentially putting themselves and their families in serious danger.
The American road trip is as much a part of our nation's fabric as apple pie and baseball. Nothing restores the soul like remembering how big and beautiful this land is. It's important to remember that road trips are more journey than vacation, however. Things can and do go wrong. Bad weather is at the top of that list. You simply can't drive coast to coast without hitting a few bad storms.
I love summer rain during a road trip. It smells incredible, and it can lower oppressive outside temperatures drastically. There's often a rainbow to enjoy when the storm is over. And the best part: If you don't like the weather, keep driving. No doubt, things are different when you clear the next mountain range, or when you out-drive the storm.
I'm talking about tame rain, however. Plenty of east and west coasters might not be familiar with the more intense storms that regularly pelt the middle of the country, like Arizona's afternoon monsoons. And there's no denying that driving through a tornado warning is harrowing experience. So here's some basic road trip advice on handling extreme weather.
Most drivers will only have to deal with some heavy rain during a typical trip, and the advice there is standard: move over, slow down, don't have bald tires and leave plenty of extra following distance. Each day this week, I've driven through at least two bad downpours, but neither one lasted more than 30 minutes. That's pretty typical.
Dealing with more extreme weather is really an information problem: Should I leave the hotel now or wait two hours until the storm has passed? That story is mixed now: On one hand, there are all manner of Internet enabled gadgets to help us predict the weather. On the other hand, it's harder to hear emergency warnings about extreme weather because many iPod-loving drivers don't listen to their radios any more. That's why, if you're driving and there's any sign of ominous clouds, it's best to turn off your tunes, find a local station and listen for weather alerts.
Of course, radio station consolidation and the proliferation of national networks like ESPN Radio has made finding local stations harder in the middle of the country. Those stations will still play emergency messages, but you won't get earlier warnings from local DJs who know the weather better. That’s why it's still worth spinning around the dial -- sampling local radio is one of the treats of cross-country trips, anyway.
It's not always clear what to do with emergency warnings, however. Recently I was caught in a very violent thunderstorm storm cell, with cloud-to-ground lightning all around me, and the emergency broadcast system warning me to “stay inside.” Adding to my dilemma, I was stuck in traffic on a highway and had nowhere to go. What would you do?
You're still much more likely to be in a car accident than to be hit by lightning, even in this situation, so handling the car safely is your first concern. If you can pull off the road safely and wait out the worst of the rain, that's probably a good idea. Flooding is likely your second-biggest worry, so don't park in a depressed area, such as under an overpass.
What about that lightning? You've probably heard at some point that the rubber tires on your car can save you from electrocution by a direct lightning strike because they act as a ground. That's not true. The car itself however can act as what's called a "Faraday Cage," dispersing the electric charge around the metal shell of the car.
That's great, unless you happen to be touching metal in the car when the strike hits, such as a steering wheel or stick shift. There are reports of police officers getting bad mouth burns because their squad car was struck while they were talking on their radios.
So what's the best advice for sitting out a lightning storm in your car? Stay in the vehicle, turn the ignition off and keep your hands in your lap, says the National Lightning Safety Institute. Don't lean on the car door, and never step out of the car.
Far less likely -- but certainly possible -- is an encounter with a tornado. Again, your best defense is information: Listen to local radio for specific areas that are under tornado watches or warnings.
Because tornados can pack an almost unimagineably violent force -- they can lift and throw entire buildings -- there are no sure-fire safety tips for dealing with them. There also is a difference of opinion about the best course of action if you encounter a tornado while driving.
All agree that abandoning the car to enter a strong shelter is your best bet. On the open road, however, that might not be possible. Professional storm chasers do outrun tornados in their vehicles -- their trick is to drive away from the storm at a right angle, to the south if possible (the north side of the storm will be pelted with hail.) An emergency memory trick for this maneuver is to directly face the storm, and then turn 90 degrees to the right.
Tornados can travel 60 mph or faster, however, and everyday drivers may put themselves at greater danger by attempting to outrun a storm. The controversy surrounds the two bad options that remain: staying in the car with the seat belt on and bend below the windshield, or abandoning the car and laying down in a ditch.
Both ideas have merit. The car will provide protection from objects thrown violently by the storm. Even if the car is thrown by the twister, it will provide some impact protection. On the other hand, a driver who finds a deep ditch well below ground level should be safer from violent winds as the storm passes. Ideally, it should be far from the abandoned car, which could be hazardous if it's thrown. Also, beware of possible flash flooding in the ditch.
The National Weather Service and the American Red Cross recently advised drivers that each option has its benefits, and drivers in a crisis should consider both:
"If flying debris occurs while you are driving, pull over and park. Now you have the following options as a last resort," they said in a joint statement.(PDF) "Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands."
Whatever the weather, staying calm is the key to making good choices, and information can really help. I'm a big fan of the Weather.com iPhone (or Android) app, which gives you hour-by-hour weather predictions and -- more important -- up-to-the-minute radar maps showing precipitation amounts. They make it easy to see if the storm you're in is a five-minute interruption by Mother Nature or a two-hour beast that you'd be better riding out in a hotel room. I find it indispensible.
Most of all, don't rush: build in extra time for your trip. That way, you'll have the option to make the safer, more conservative choice if you need to, without worrying about missing grandma's turkey dinner.
What are your tips for bad-weather road trip driving?