Thursday, December 19, 2002

Cars safer than ditches in tornadoes, study says

The Associated Press

KENT, Ohio - A Kent State University professor suggests in a new study that in the event of a tornado it's safer to stay in a car than hide in a ditch.

Tom Schmidlin, who researches severe weather, suggests if you aren't near a sturdy building or other shelter, you should get in your car, buckle up and drive to something that would act as shelter.

"Ditches are outside, and outside is dangerous during a severe thunderstorm. ... A person is exposed to flying debris, lightning," said Professor Schmidlin, chairman of the Kent State geography department.

Mr. Schmidlin is challenging guidelines of the National Weather Service and other groups that advocate getting out of cars or mobile homes and lying in a ditch if no shelter is nearby.

"A person lying in a ditch is stuck in a bad situation, but in a vehicle you have the opportunity to move to a sturdy shelter," he said.

A spokesman for the National Weather Service said the agency is reviewing Mr. Schmidlin's study, which appears in the December issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Mr. Schmidlin and Paul King, a researcher at Cornell University who is one of the co-authors of the study, stress that a car is not the ideal place to be in a tornado.

But they say their findings show being in a vehicle may be better than being in a ditch - or a mobile home.

Mobile-home residents account for nearly half of the tornado-related deaths in this country each year.

For the study, Mr. Schmidlin, Mr. King and other researchers used wind tunnel tests to determine what wind speed it takes to tip over a mid-sized sedan and a minivan. They determined the vehicles are considerably more stable in high winds than mobile homes.

The group also studied nearly 300 cars exposed to tornado winds.

Vehicles often remain upright in tornadoes even while mobile homes next to them are destroyed and the occupants killed, according to previous research by Mr. Schmidlin, Mr. King and Kent State research associate Barbara Hammer.

Mr. Schmidlin said that after talking with hundreds of tornado survivors he has learned many people don't follow the National Weather Service's advice to head for a ditch.

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