Fellow chaser Steve Miller (OK) made a great point on his blog a couple of months ago. Those of us who have been chasing for over a decade are now, in effect, the new "veterans" of the hobby, just as the pioneers of storm chasing were when we started ourselves. And just as the movie "Twister" resulted in a mass influx of new chasers in 1996, the recent flurry of chasing documentaries on the Discovery Channel (and yet another series possibly upcoming on NBC) is likely going to result in a second 'great influx' in the 2009 season. Just like we looked to the "veterans" when we started, the new generation will now be looking to us. We have a great opportunity to help the newcomers have a safe and productive participation in the world of chasing.
It is in this spirit that I offer my own advice about some of the 'hot topics' that a new chaser should consider. This comes from my 16 years of chasing, learning many lessons the 'hard way' and thankfully learning some the easy way (without incident). You'll hear the 'nobody cares' phrase repeatedly in this post - this comes from my essay on the subject - I hope every new chaser will consider these points.
I have a more lengthy Storm Chasing FAQ with more topics posted (some of these new items will eventually make their way there). I'll be reposting this a couple of times as chase season gets close next spring.
Using a computer in the car
I believe that using a laptop computer while driving is the single biggest threat to the lives of storm chasers. Not only is it illegal in most states, it beats out all dangers from the road and from the storms themselves. I fear the first major chaser tragedy (as in multiple fatalities and making national news) will be an auto accident, likely caused by a driver looking at his laptop screen. I have scared myself into not doing this anymore after a couple of close calls. As in, scared more than any storm has ever scared me. The info on that screen is important, but please, pull over to look at it! You can afford the 30 second stops to look at a radar loop.
The best thing is to delegate "laptop duty" to a passenger. Or, have someone else drive so you can be the laptop 'navigator' and data 'nowcaster'. If you're solo, keep the laptop closed - only open it when you can pull over!
Please take this seriously! There's no other way to put it - if you hurt or kill someone because you were using your laptop while driving, you're going to jail and getting a lifetime of financial hardship. Negligent homicide will not be a nice thing to be marked with.
Your car and the road is your biggest danger.
Going along with the above point, it needs to be pointed out that a great attention to highway safety needs to happen before, during and after a chase.
Let's be honest for a minute. Storm dangers to chasers are greatly overhyped, and deep down we all know it. We all 'ride the wave' of the false perception in the general public that storm chasing is this 'extreme sport', because it sells videos, it gets us on TV shows, it makes what we do more interesting to people. But let's get real - we all know you have to work pretty hard and/or just act plain stupid to get a storm to hurt you, because storm safety is nearly all common sense. So don't kid yourself! Car accidents, so far, have been the only killers of storm chasers.
So implement an almost 'military' attention to this issue - call out your driver if you see him doing something unsafe. Don't ignore the storm dangers, but give your driving safety the greater priority.
Lightbars and flashing lights
You'll hear a lot of heated opinions (and read a lot of endless forum threads) on this issue - so here are the facts. State laws vary regarding the use of supplimentary lighting equipment on civilian vehicles, including those of storm chasers and spotters. Check with your own state's laws. In most states, lightbars are OK - amber flashing lights may be used to suppliment your four-way hazard lights. That is, in most states, you can use an amber lightbar/strobe/arrow stick for situations where you would use your four-way hazard lights - for example, pulled over on the side of the highway, stopped for tornado debris on the road, or driving in poor visibility. Lightbars or strobes cannot be used to imply authority, to break traffic laws, park illegally, or to usurp right-of-way over other vehicles. For instance, using your lights to speed or make cars ahead yield right-of-way would be illegal, and could get you stopped and ticketed by law enforcement (or even have your lights confiscated).
If you wish to use supplimentary lights, the safest bet is to stick to ambers only, and use the lights only when you absolutely need them. Treat them as you would a box of flares or any other emergency equipment - use them judiciously. I have lights installed most of the time, but very rarely switch them on.
Lightbars are nothing special. By that I mean I don't even think it's an issue for detractors to get all bent out of shape over. Tow trucks have them, as do construction trucks, parking meter maids, flag cars, salt trucks/snowplows, and many more. They're hardly a symbol of authority, stature or importance to anyone. Like everything else chasers do, no average person out there really cares if there are lights on your car. It is important to check your state's laws, as in a few states, operating even amber lights requires a permit.
Breaking traffic laws
Most chasers (if not all) are guilty of breaking traffic laws at one time or another during the 'heat of the chase'. It has happened to the best of us (yes, me included [gasp]), but doesn't make it right. It's just not worth it. Being a storm chaser or spotter does not give you special privileges on the road. You are still subject to traffic laws, and are subject to being stopped and ticketed if you break them just like any other driver on the road. Chasing isn't a valid excuse to break the law - especially not to a police officer or a judge.
In the end, nobody cares if you catch that tornado, so don't put your life (and/or wallet) in danger to do it!
Supplying video to the media
Media companies (television stations, cable channels, etc) are businesses, not charities - and you should not give your video footage away for free or for cheap. No one cares if you make it on TV, so either get paid for your footage, or pass on the deal. Being on TV means nothing to anyone but yourself, your family and your close friends. So don't donate your many miles, gas money and long days to help a TV station's bottom line! StormTrack members can read a list of tips I posted about selling video to the media.
Decals and mobile weather instruments
It's really OK to have these things on your car, if that's what makes you happy. Remember though that nobody cares, so do whatever you do for your own enjoyment, and not for anyone else. I have found that decals have little effect on traffic to your web site, so I don't use them much any more. These things are just like a football fan that has team decals and pennants on his car - no right or wrong, a matter of personal preference.
Don't let anyone chastize you for a mobile station for it being 'useless' or 'attention getting'. A home-mounted station doesn't collect research-grade data of any real use either, but there are plenty of those around. If you enjoy collecting the data for yourself, have at it!
The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:
Dan, this is a really good blog entr for new chasers along with the chasing faq. Great job. People don't realize the dangers of distracted driving. I'll be adding some links to it. - Posted by Bill Hark from Richmond