The goal of this research was to examine the relative safety and stability of stationary motor vehicles exposed to severe winds. The focus was on private passenger vehicles. 1) The behavior of two instrumented storm-chase vehicles that were exposed to severe winds, 2) the behavior of 291 vehicles exposed to a tornado, and 3) the wind speed required to upset a sedan and a minivan exposed to winds in a wind tunnel were studied. A wind as strong as 47 m s−1 (105 mph) has been measured by a storm-chase pickup truck and 44 m s−1 (98 mph) by a storm chase sedan. The vehicles were not adversely affected by the wind. Also studied were 291 vehicles parked outdoors at homes struck by tornadoes, and the behavior of the vehicles was compared to the F-scale damage to the house. At sites with F1 or F2 damage, 72% of the vehicles were not moved by the wind and 96% were not tipped over. At sites with F3 or F4 damage, 50% were not moved by the wind and 82% were not tipped over. Wind tunnel tests on a sedan and minivan showed they were most vulnerable to upset (lifting of one tire from the ground) with wind directions near 45° and 135°, as measured from the front. When modeled with 5° of suspension tilt to the side, the sedan was found to be upset at wind speeds of 51–67 m s−1 (115–150 mph), and the minivan was upset at wind speeds of 58–80 m s−1 (130–180 mph). Although an underground shelter or sturdy building offer the best protection from severe winds, it is found that a vehicle may be a relatively stable place and may be safer than a mobile home or the outdoors. These findings may warrant changes to public recommendations made during tornado warnings and other severe storm situations.

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Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Boyce Thompson Institute, Ithaca, New York

Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas