Josh Leach is based out of Elgin, Oklahoma with 20 years of experience in emergency management operations and storm spotting. You can find Josh on Twitter and also on Instagram

Among the most common misconceptions concerning storm safety is where to take shelter if you are out on the road when severe weather strikes.  

A common answer will be to seek shelter under an overpass as it will protect you from flying debris, hail and the storms winds.  Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth.  

Seeking shelter under an overpass is among the worst mistakes you could make for yourself and others as it provides little protection for yourself or your vehicle, blocks the road preventing emergency responders from getting through to those in need and leaves you with no chance to escape.

The Myth’s Origins

This myth of an overpass providing shelter from a tornado is nothing new and one emergency management officials have long tried to overturn.  Unfortunately, media has a large role in keeping this idea alive.  You have likely seen the famous 1991 video of the Andover Kansas tornado.  A news crew captured a tornado chasing them up a Kansas turnpike and kept the cameras rolling as they took shelter under an overpass while the tornado narrowly missed them.  

Another factor which saved their lives, the overpasses design itself was rather rare in the United States. Most are simply open slabs of concrete in a horizontal V like pattern, which provide zero protection from wind and debris.  The Kansas Turnpike overpass shown in the video had a small crawl space just large enough for a few people to gain access and out of the path of the direct winds.  Trying to hide in the far more common overpass designs will leave you as a stationary target for winds and debris to smash into.

 Not exactly the best choice you could make for yourself.  Unfortunately, this video has been widely seen and helped spread the myth of the safety of an overpass.

A famous and tragic example of this myths failure happened in graphic fashion during the May 3, 1999 tornado which struck the cities of Moore and Bridge Creek at near rush hour.  People huddled under bridges along the city’s highways, leaving their cars blocking the road. In most cases, they huddled so close together on the people could not even open their car doors to escape.  While this specific event only resulted in three fatalities stemming from individuals seeking shelter at overpasses, those that survived were all extremely lucky.  This tornado passed near them. Any closer, and they would have likely been killed.  The National Weather Service captured this frightening photograph while doing damage surveys.  That outline is where people tried to seek shelter and several did not make it.  Those who did survive were horribly injured. And this was only a close call, not even a direct his or side swipe.

Numerous other videos since show the after effects of this rush for perceived safety.  Reed Timmer caught it on film on May 24, 2011 near Newcastle, Oklahoma.  People huddled together under an overpass and their cars on the highway, smashed after a storm passed by. This is unfortunately not an isolated incident.

In 2013, the movie “Man of Steel” featured a scene where people were being directed to the “safety” of an overpass with a tornado approaching.  I watched that scene in complete disbelief, knowing someone would see and remember it as some sort of instruction manual of what to do in a tornado.

While its repeatedly happened again and again, sometimes with fatal results, the slow start to the 2019 storm season has already produced another vivid example of this perception continuing.Despite decades of efforts to educate the public to avoid placing themselves in extreme danger, some continue to seek shelter under overpasses.

KOCO Meteorologist Michael Armstrong captured this image from the Kilpatrick Turnpike at the Bryant Overpass showing vehicles completely blocking the highway in a hailstorm on March 24th. Blocking a highway should be a common-sense issue something you should never do, but it happens every year.  Not only does this put the drivers rushing for the overpass at risk, it puts others around them at risk and prevents traffic from flowing by…including first responders.  When seconds count between life and death, preventing first responders from reaching people in need is about as selfish of an act one can think of.  This danger increases at night time as well.

So what to do?  

There are a multitude of ways to track weather yourself and its usually completely free.  From watching your local news networks coverage to checking your mobile devices weather radar of your choice.  I personally use RadarScope, which only costs $9.99 a year.  This app can pinpoint your exact location in relation to a storm and you can simply drive the other direction to avoid it.  If its too late, you now know it and you can find the closet structure to seek shelter until the storm passes.

If you have a smart phone, you should automatically receive emergency weather bulletinsnotifying you of severe weather.

However, this does not mean you will always get this message.  It’s a nice byproduct of a connected society but it also can result in a lull in personal reliability as nothing is fool proof.  Be observant of changing weather conditions and be sure to check your local news media for warnings and updates, especially if you are on the road.  If you are driving into a storm, simply pull over in advance and wait it out at a gas station, grocery store or anything open. Do not wait. If you find yourself in a unavoidable situation and no available shelter, your best chance of survival is to find the closet ditch or low area and lay flat.

Average lead time for a tornado warning is roughly 15 minutes, more for large destructive tornados.  This unfortunately does not account for storms that suddenly drop fast spin ups, which account for the large majority of confirmed tornado touchdowns in this country.  Those may only have a lead time of three to five minutes…if at all.  And it’s not only tornados you have to be aware of.  Severe Thunderstorms can produce excessively high winds and torrential rainfall, along with large hail, all of which are major hazards for travelers.  

See Also: How to Stay Informed on the Road of Severe Weather

“I must protect my car from hail”

I’ve personally heard people say this and it’s among the worst mistakes you can make.  First off, it’s removes you from a sheltered location and puts you in direct path of a storm and its large hail.  You also have to contend with other ill-informed people who are thinking the same thingand sharing space with panicked people is never a safe option.  With no shelter, all vying for the same space, injuries will occur.  

I understand we love our vehicles and don’t want them damaged by a hailstorm.  I love my cars too and work hard to keep them in pristine condition.  But risking a life, including your own, to avoid a few hail dents is unquestionably foolish.  Either fully insure your vehicle to cover storm damages or become weather aware to do your very best to being caught in a severe storm in the first place.  

This same principle applies to parking garages. The wind speeds of a storm increase with height.  So does the debris cloud.   A parking garage may save you from hail but it will not save you the other dangerous aspects of a storm.  Add in the chances of fires from fuel cells being punctured and you have little chance of making it out of there alive in the event of a hit.  

How to survive?

Survival depends mostly on those who are prepared and understand what’s happening in the environment around them.  Don’t rely on chance, rely on your knowledge to help keep you safe. Keep track of each days expected conditions, especially if you live in an area prone to severe weather.  When storms threaten, check your local media of choice for updates.  If the situation allows, leave for your destination far earlier than you normally would.  If warnings have already been posted, play it safe and simply stay off the roads until storms have passed your area.