Many millions of us will experience severe thunderstorms over the coming weeks and months. When one of these intense storms crops up, a number of you will find yourselves driving into a major hailstorm, during which you may feel the urge to park under an overpass to protect your car. Don’t.
Meteorologists sound like a broken record during the spring. You know the drill: stay away from windows, lowest level of the building, interior room, don’t go outside when lightning is nearby...it gets to the point where your friendly neighborhood weather nerd sounds like your mom telling you to put on gloves so you don’t catch a cold. The problem with this feeling is that, unlike putting on a coat or gloves (which doesn’t prevent colds), the advice weatherpeople give you can actually save your life in an emergency.
Over the past couple of decades, meteorologists have made it a point to tell people not to hide under an overpass during a tornado. In some ways, overpasses are a worse place to be when a tornado strikes than out in the open. Like putting your thumb over the end of a garden hose to make the water spray faster, tornadic winds can press under an overpass and speed up, increasing the chances that anyone taking cover will be pelted by flying debris or sucked out and thrown to their demise.
Nevertheless, many people who are caught on roads when there’s a tornado on the horizon still choose to hide under an overpass, and those who justify their actions point to several famous videos of people who did just this and lived to talk about it. People survive seemingly unsurvivable situations all the time, but it’s funny how you never hear from those who aren’t so lucky. (Because they’re dead.)
People driving down the road during a severe thunderstorm may feel a similar impulse when hail starts pelting their cars—you naturally want to prevent costly damage to your vehicle, and at the very least, prevent hail from smashing through the windows and injure you and your passengers.
This is not a good idea.
Sure, hiding under an overpass will protect your car provided that the wind isn’t sending the hail on a diagonal path, but these actions can have serious consequences beyond your personal inconvenience.
Here’s how these situations almost always pan out when hailstones start falling: one person decides to park on the shoulder underneath a bridge on a major interstate. As the hail grows larger and the rate picks up, other people follow suit, squeezing onto what’s left of the shoulder on both sides of the road. Once the shoulder fills up, people will just stop in the middle of the lane on the highway, creating a traffic jam that can trap hundreds of people for miles behind the bridge until the storm stops and people leave their selfish oasis.
If you think this is some nagging, exaggerated hypothetical, it’s not. It happens every freakin’ time there’s a major hailstorm in some populated area.
BREAKING PIC: Hail covers I-470 outside Denver; cars trying to dodge by hiding under overpass pic.twitter.com/FwMZQSU78S— Pablo Pereira (@PabloWeather) August 23, 2013
Scary bus ride home! Everyone stopped under the overpass due to the hail. pic.twitter.com/OPzkuxYLZe— Violet Sunde (@Violet_Conchita) August 7, 2013
Parking under an overpass during a hailstorm is a wonderfully jerkface move. It’s like evacuating an airplane and freezing up in the emergency exit—you’re almost safe yourself, but you’re royally screwing all the people stuck in the disaster behind you.
Blocking traffic while parking under a bridge can and does cause traffic jams that trap hundreds of people on the road during a severe thunderstorm. If something happens down the road that requires first responders, they themselves can get stuck in the traffic, unable to help people who need it the most.
If the rain and hail are coming down hard enough to reduce visibility, people coming up on the traffic jam (or parked cars) may not realize they’re standing still in time to brake, causing a chain reaction pileup accident.
In the worst case scenario, there can be an ugly and lethal surprise behind that intense hailstorm. Locations impacted by tornadoes that form from the hook echoes of a classic supercell often see the worst of the storm before the tornado roars through. These locations could see an extended period of strong winds, very large hail, and blinding rains before it all clears out, lulling people into a false sense of security before the tornado strikes. The inevitable traffic jam that results from people scurrying to hide under a bridge could force hundreds of people to be sitting ducks for a tornado that could lurk just behind the end of the hailstorm.
This is one of those instances where people have to remember that we all live in a society, and that they have to think of the safety of those around them, as well. I know many people like to live in some Machiavellian fantasy where they should do whatever they can to serve themselves, to hell with everyone else, but one person’s selfish actions can harm so many other people in a situation like this.
The best thing to do when you’re caught in a hailstorm (preferably beforehand, if know you’re driving into one) is to pull into a parking lot and sit there until the storm is gone. This helps to alleviate some of the impact of the hail while preventing a disaster on local roads that could claim more lives than the storm itself. If you’re worried about your safety in a vehicle being pelted by hail, pay attention to the radar (or just listen to the radio or watch the sky) and make sure you give yourself enough time to pull into a parking lot and take shelter in a sturdy building before the storm hits.
Taking the right actions during a weather emergency means the difference between life and death, for both you and those around you. Just imagine how pissed off you’d be if someone else caused you to get into a serious accident because they wanted to save their precious car. Don’t risk the safety of other motorists because you value your car over lives.
It’s corny, sure, but it’s true: Cars can be replaced. Lives cannot.