How to Survive Driving in Extreme Weather Conditions

Simple, easy to remember tips

driving in flood

Extreme weather is like a bear attack: when it happens to you—or when you imagine it happening and try to remember what you hypothetically are supposed to do—it can be difficult to remember the specifics of what you are definitely supposed to do and what you are definitely not supposed to do. Do you climb a tree, or not? Should you stare the bear down, or get into a fetal position? Do you go with the skid, or against it? We’re here to remind you what to do when, so if extreme weather happens to you, you’ll be prepared. (For bear attacks, check here).

First, and we can’t stress this enough: avoid driving in extreme weather. The only way to truly avoid a disaster in your car is to not drive in extreme weather conditions. The following is for emergency situations—when you’re caught in a sudden storm and need to make it someplace safe. Second, make sure your vehicle is properly equipped with an emergency kit. You’ll also want to make sure your car is properly weatherproofed ahead of time.

flash flood

Flash Floods: “Turn Around, Don’t Drown!”

According to Progressive, flash floods are the number one weather-related killer in the U.S. Importantly, says progressive, most deaths happen because people try to drive through the rapidly rising water instead of avoiding it. In fact, reports that, “Almost two of every three U.S. flash flood deaths from 1995-2010, excluding fatalities from Hurricane Katrina, occurred in vehicles.”

The worst decision drivers can make, says, is to drive through any kind of water on the road—the depth will be unknown to you, and it’s very easy to misjudge how deep it is. In fact, says:

Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars, causing loss of control and potential stalling.
A foot of water will float many vehicles.
Two feet of rushing water will carry away most vehicles, including SUVs and pickups.

The National Weather Service has a simple, easy to remember PSA: “Turn Around, Don’t Drown!” That is, never drive through any kind of water on the road. Turn around and get out of there. And never ignore a barricade.

The worst decision drivers can make? Driving through water on a road when you don't know its depth.

If there is no where to turn around and you must drive through water, take these following precautions (from Progressive):

  • Drive slowly and steadily through the water.
  • Avoid driving in water that downed electrical or power lines have fallen in — electric current passes through water easily.
  • Watch for items traveling downstream — they can trap or crush you if you’re in their path.
  • If you have driven through water up to the wheel rims or higher, test your brakes on a clear patch of road at low speed. If they are wet and not stopping the vehicle as they should, dry them by pressing gently on the brake pedal with your left foot while maintaining speed with your right foot.
  • Stay off the telephone unless you must report severe injuries.
  • If your vehicle stalls in the deep water, you may need to restart the engine to make it to safety. Keep in mind that restarting may cause irreparable damage to the engine.
  • If you can’t restart your vehicle and you become trapped in rising water, immediately abandon it for higher ground. Try to open the door or roll down the window to get out of the vehicle. If you are unable to get out safely, call 911 or get the attention of a passerby or someone standing on higher ground so that they may call for help.

Wildfires: “Stay in the Vehicle; Do Not Run”

As with flash floods, you should only be driving through or near a wildfire in an extreme emergency. If all else has failed and you are caught in your vehicle during a firestorm, has the following important tips for driving:

This is dangerous and should only be done in an emergency, but you can survive the firestorm if you stay in your car. It is much less dangerous than trying to run from a fire on foot.

  • Roll up windows and close air vents. Drive slowly with headlights on. Watch for other vehicles and pedestrians. Do not drive through heavy smoke.
  • If you have to stop, park away from the heaviest trees and brush. Turn headlights on and ignition off. Roll up windows and close air vents.
  • Get on the floor and cover up with a blanket or coat.
  • Stay in the vehicle until the main fire passes.
  • Stay in the car. Do not run! Engine may stall and not restart. Air currents may rock the car. Some smoke and sparks may enter the vehicle. Temperature inside will increase. Metal gas tanks and containers rarely explode.


Earthquakes: “Like Driving with Four Flat Tires”

Earthquakes come up suddenly, and while they’re more likely to occur over fault lines, they can happen anywhere, at any time, so you’ll need to be able to recognize them and react to stay safe. If you’ve never experienced an earthquake, you might not immediately recognize one happening, especially if you’re driving. There’s no big flash of light and nothing coming from the sky, of course, but if you’re ever driving along and lose control of your car for an unknown reason, and your tires and other systems are all okay, you could be experiencing an earthquake.

A few words of caution, from Esurance: “The ground itself can shake or crack open, and the aftermath can cause more destruction. Keep an eye out for understandably distracted drivers, stopped cars, collapsing overpasses or bridges, broken gas lines, and downed power lines.” Esurance also says that driving during an earthquake is like driving with four flat tires. If you are on the road during one, here are some tips (from Esurance and Progressive:

  • Slow down until you can safely pull over and stop. If you’re on the freeway, take the first exit that’s safe and avoid parking near overpasses, big trees, power lines, bridges, and buildings.
  • Stay in your car with your seat belt on until the earthquake is over.
  • Check the radio for updates. Most stations will switch over to emergency broadcasting, which will keep you posted on any area dangers and alert you to instructions from authorities.
  • Stay in your car.
  • Check for injuries.
  • Stay off the telephone unless you must report severe injuries.
  • Look for cracks, breaks or obstructions in the road as you drive.
  • Do not, under any circumstance, drive over a downed electrical line.

And after the earthquake has finished? Be on the lookout for damage to roads, bridges, and overpasses, and for stalled vehicles and other hazards.


Tornadoes: Stay Low

This is telling: if you Google, “How to drive during a tornado,” the search engine will try to redirect you to, “How to drive away from a tornado.” As always, Google brings the best advice. So if you spot a tornado far enough ahead of time, and you can, drive away from it. But, you don’t want to try to outrun the tornado: experts suggest driving at a 90 degree angle to its path, if you can.

If not, here’s what to do (from

  • Evacuate your vehicle and find shelter in the nearest sturdy building, like a fast food restaurant or a bank (the former has refrigerators that can withstand tornado winds, and the later has vaults). Standing in interior walls is the best idea.
  • If there’s no nearby shelter, do not hide under or stay near your car; instead, find a ditch or other low area and lay down with your hands covering the back of your head.
  • If there are no places [lower than the road]( you are on, you should stay in your car, put your seatbelt on, lower your head below the windows, and cover your head with either your hands or a blanket.
  • Do not hide under an overpass in your car.

Basically, if you can’t travel 90 degrees to the tornado’s path, do not stay in your car unless the road is the lowest ground you can find.

Hurricanes: Drive carefully and find shelter ASAP

You should never drive into a hurricane, if you can avoid it. But if you do find yourself on the road when one hits, follow these tips (from Esurance):

  • Stay in your car and try to find shelter — an overpass or parking garage — if you can.
  • When possible, avoid driving through water, which can hide dangers, damage your engine, or even carry your vehicle away.
  • Watch out for wires that have been knocked down in the storm. You could get stuck driving through them, and worse, they could make rescue impossible.
  • Keep your eyes out for big vehicles and maintain more of a distance than you normally would.
  • Don’t set your cruise control: if you hydroplane, the car could accelerate.
  • If you do hydroplane let off the gas slowly and steer straight until your tires find the road again. Don’t slam on the brakes or turn the steering wheel. Once you regain traction, lightly tap the brake pedal to help dry the brakes.

So there you have it: if you can, always stay off the road during extreme weather. And if you cannot, stay safe out there.