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Study Finds Cars Relatively Safe in Tornadoes

Not ideal, but better than trailer homes

FRIDAY, Dec. 20, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Mobile home owners are told that when a twister looms, their trailer is dangerous but their car is worse.

That's hot air that could get them seriously injured or killed, according to a new study, which finds that cars are less likely than mobile homes to be moved or damaged by tornado-force winds.

"People do die in vehicles, of course. That's a very vivid image that sticks in your mind," said Thomas Schmidlin, a co-author of the study. "But it turns out that most of them are not crumpled and blown around and most of them are drivable even at sites where people are killed in mobile homes."

So far this year, 53 Americans have died in tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service, which tracks the information. Of those, 36 were in mobile homes when the twister hit, 10 were in fixed houses, and three were outside. Four died in their cars. (An elderly Arkansas woman was killed Wednesday in a tornado, but officials couldn't tell whether she lived in a trailer home because the damage was so severe.)

Schmidlin, a professor of geography at Kent State University in Ohio, and his colleagues don't suggest cars are the safest places to be in a twister -- far from it. But they're better than either trailers or being outside and exposed.

"We're recommending that [people in mobile homes] go out, get into their vehicle, buckle in, and drive to some prearranged sturdy building," he said. "We see the vehicle as a means to getting to better shelter."

Schmidlin has been at the front of a long and so far unsuccessful campaign to encourage the National Weather Service and the American Red Cross to amend their tornado safety guidelines. Both groups now advise people in the path of the deadly funnels to avoid their cars, and even get out and find a roadside ditch if they can't reach shelter first.

"If you're in a car and a tornado's coming at you, the advice right now is to get out of the car and cover your head, make as low a profile as you can," said Joe Schaefer, director of the National Weather Service's storm prediction center in Norman, Okla. "By getting into a shallow depression the chances of getting picked up and going airborne are minimized and the chances of getting hit by flying debris are minimized."

Schaefer said he read Schmidlin's latest paper, which appears this month in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. But he's not ready to change the weather agency's tornado guidelines quite yet.

"Right now the Schmidlin paper really needs further analysis before the National Weather Service says, 'Yes, let's do this.'" That will entail having other researchers looking into it, he added.

The current recommendations stem largely from a two-decades-old study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a killer twister that struck Wichita Falls, Tex., in April 1979. Of the 44 who died, 25 were motorists, many of whom tried to escape the storm but got caught in traffic or in the windpath, Schaefer said.

Even so, Schmidlin insists cars have several safety advantages over both ditches and trailers. For starters, they can move, so if a person has time to drive away from a tornado they can do so. Better still, he said, is to head for the nearest solid building like a brick house, a fire station, or a school with a better chance of withstanding fierce winds. Ideally, safety experts say, an underground basement is the best place to wait out a tornado.

Cars are also designed with the safety of their occupants in mind. They have seat belts and rollover protection that can minimize injuries in the event that the winds are strong enough to lift a vehicle.

Yet Schmidlin and his colleagues found that, graphic images of cars in trees aside, tornadoes rarely have the force to lift, let alone move, vehicles. Their surveys of twister sites in seven states over a six-year period found that the vast majority of 291 passenger vehicles, including cars, vans and pickup trucks, parked next to homes in the damage path weren't lifted or tipped by the winds.

Only in the most severe storms, those with wind speeds estimated to be between 158 and 260 miles per hour, were half of the vehicles moved more than a meter. Yet even then 82 percent didn't roll. These twisters make up about 7 percent of all tornadoes.

The group also did wind tunnel tests on two vehicle types, sedan and minivan, and found that minivans were slightly more aerodynamic -- meaning they're more likely to weather a tornado without being slung. Yet in general, Schmidlin said, the field surveys found that passenger cars fared about the same regardless of their model.

Rocky Lopes, a community disaster education specialist with the American Red Cross, said his group's tornado guidelines come directly from the weather service. However, Lopes said, the new study "isn't quackery," and "there's always a need to look at additional information that's developed through scientific methods."

What To Do

To find out more about tornadoes and other dangerous weather, visit the National Weather Service or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

SOURCES: Thomas W. Schmidlin, Ph.D., professor and chair, department of geography, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio; Joe Schaefer, director, storm prediction center, Norman, Okla.; Rocky Lopes, senior associate for community disaster education, American Red Cross, Washington, D.C.; December 2002 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
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