This article was originally a section of my Storm Chasing FAQ. The subtopic has become large enough to make an article in itself, so I pulled this text out of the FAQ and made it into this standalone page.
If you were to poll non-chasers about what they thought the biggest risks to a storm chaser were, you'd almost always hear tornadoes, hail and lightning mentioned. I'm entering into my 19th year in the hobby, and have yet to be harmed, or even seriously threatened, by any of those. So what are the risks of being a storm chaser? Here's my answer:
Auto Accidents You will hear me repeat this again and again on this site - the most dangerous part of storm chasing is not the storms - it's being the road! In my 20 years of storm chasing, I have had more close calls related to driving than I have with storms.
Prior to May 31, 2013, there were only four known chase-trip-in-progress deaths in the entire history of the hobby (from the early 1970s through May 31, 2013). All four of those were due to car accidents. Two of the accidents were caused by animals running onto the road at night, one by hydroplaning, and one by a drunk/impaired driver. All of these car accidents occured when the chaser was either on their way to a chase target or on their way home - the accidents did not occur when the driver was in 'chase mode' during severe weather. Aside from the one hydroplaning incident, weather itself was not a factor in the accidents.
The multitasking, high-distraction environment and adverse road conditions during a storm chase can further add to the basic risks of the road for a chaser. In the vicinity of storms, driving on roads in rain or hail can be tricky, and many rural roads in the Great Plains can become muddy quagmires when wet. Chasers often log hundreds of miles a day and must be well-rested to avoid fatigue. A chaser must be disciplined enough to pay full attention to the road, even when the sky is doing everything it can to divert a driver's eyes upward. Of all the dangers of chasing, driving a car personally makes me more nervous than any weather I've ever experienced - and I devote much more caution to the hazards of the road than I do to a storm. Again, chasing storms doesn't make driving risky, highway dangers are a hazard for anyone on the road, whether they are on vacation, driving to the store, or on a business trip. But as far as the risks of chasing are concerned, the chances of a vehicle accident is much greater than that of being hit by a tornado or lightning strike, or any other storm-related danger. Therefore a chaser's number-one safety priority must be focused on his or her vehicle and the road ahead.
Furthermore, chasers that drive at excessively high speeds to catch tornadoes are at a many times greater risk from an accident (not only to themselves but others on the road) than all storm-related risks combined. A classic example of this was a recent sensational news story about a close tornado intercept that described the chaser's supposed near-death encounter with the storm, while glossing over the fact that they had to drive 100mph on a rain-covered two-lane road to get there. This near-death experience was not the tornado - but was actually the fact that their vehicle managed to not lose control. The chances of death from the tornado could not compare with the risk from that type of driving behavior. In fact, a multi-vehicle accident involving a car traveling at that speed could easily cause more death and injury from the tornado itself.
Classifying the risk from driving
There is disagreement in the chase community on whether to call the risk from auto accidents a 'storm chasing' risk. Some say that storm chasing, driving to work, going on vacation and a grocery store run are the same thing, in terms of the highway dangers encountered. So, it is argued that a car accident during a chase trip may not be fully classifiable as a 'chasing accident'. My argument for classifying car accidents as 'chasing accidents' is that storm chasing is driving. Driving and chasing are inseperable. Not only driving, but an abnormally high amount of it. Chasing requires long drives to a target early in the day, long drives during the chase itself, and long drives on the way home.
Highway safety professionals have always quantified the driving risk in terms of the number of deaths per mile traveled. So, as you drive more miles, your risk increases. Because storm chasing is, in essence, near-constant driving, I argue that the increased risk from all of that extra mileage can indeed be classified as a storm chasing risk in itself. In other words, storm chasing directly exposes the participant to an abnormally higher risk of auto accidents than that of the average person. Another way I look at it is by this analogy: if a Mount Everest climber slips on a ledge on his way back down the mountain and falls to his death, do you classify it as a mountain climbing death, or one related to falling, ice, his shoes or his equipment?
Breaking down driving risks
To further break down this topic, here are what I believe are the primary dangers to chasers on the road:
Distracted Driving - Laptop use while driving (to look at radar images) is unfortunately what I predict will be the cause of the first major storm chasing tragedy. Few other factors present such a grave risk to people on the highways than a driver operating a vehicle at high speed who isn't looking at the road.
Hydroplaning - Many chasers have had hydroplaning accidents, some serious and at least one that resulted in loss of life. The 'push' to catch/keep up with a storm often tempts a chaser to drive faster than is safe.
Animals - Two of the four known chase-in-progress deaths were caused by animal-on-the-road accidents at night. Chasers log many miles late at night, a time when wildlife (particulary deer) commonly dart out into the road. Many, if not most, chasers have hit animals during a chase expedition. It happened to one vehicle in our caravan in 2005.
Road ice - As 'chasing' and photographing winter storms (ice storms, blizzards, etc) becomes more popular, I expect to see more of these types of accidents. Many have already occured that to my knowledge, have thankfully not yet resulted in serious injury or death to a chaser.
Excessive speed - Sudden sharp turns and other road hazards can make any of the above threats even more deadly when a chaser is traveling at a high rate of speed.
Other motorists - Even the safest chasers are still ultimately at the mercy of the behavior of other drivers on the roads. One of the known chase-trip-in-progress deaths was caused by a drunk driver heading the wrong way on an interstate.
Dirt roads - While not much of a threat to one's life, dirt roads can be major hazards. In the Midwest and Plains, many secondary roads are unpaved. When these roads get wet from rain, they turn into a surface that behaves exactly like black ice to a vehicle. Even four-wheel-drive trucks can easily lose control and/or get stuck on dirt roads. Scores of vehicles are mired by these dirt roads in the Plains every spring. While getting stuck in and of itself is usually 'only' a major (and costly) inconvenience, it can put a chaser into a life-threatening situation if they can't get out of the path of a tornado or large hail.
Inaccurate maps - Even modern GPS mapping software suffers from countless errors when it comes to secondary roads. It is common for an indicated paved road to be unpaved and treacherous/impassable, and for a through-road shown on the map to end prematurely or not exist at all. These mapping blunders have trapped chasers on numerous occasions with no escape routes, causing hail damage and close calls with tornadoes.
I lost one of my friends and chase partners in 2009 to a car accident that occured while he was on the way to a chase target. The accident was caused by a deer.
Financial and Social Risks Storm chasing can be a very addicting activity once one gets 'bitten by the bug' - so much so that I'm placing the financial and social risks of chasing in this list - and at that, above the threat from storm hazards! My reasoning being, it's more likely for a chaser to harm themselves financially and/or socially from chasing than it is for them to get hit by lightning or a tornado.
The urge to not miss a big outbreak can be a strong one. Things like media attention and the mostly-misguided idea that the participant is helping to 'save lives' can often make chasing seem more important than it actually is. Granted, this type of dedication to any hobby (golf, fishing, skydiving, sports, etc) can be similarly destructive, but storm chasing seems to present a higher-than-typical risk than other leisure pasttimes.
It's easy for any chaser to make the mistake of putting seeing storms and tornadoes above virtually anything else in life. Lost friends, broken marriages/relationships, high debt, lost income and failed careers are common in the world of chasing. I myself have not been immune to the temptation to give chasing a higher priority than it deserves. Seeing chasing for what it really is - just another hobby - and finding a balance between storms and other things in life is one of the most important things a chaser can learn. I wrote an essay on this subject on my blog about the fact that in the end, 'Nobody Cares' what you've done as a chaser! Don't let something take over your life that in the end, doesn't mean much.
Lightning Chasers spend a lot of time in the vicinity of thunderstorms. Over the years, several chasers have had close calls with lightning strikes. This risk can be minimized by staying in your vehicle as much as possible, especially during periods of high lightning activity.
Large Hail Encounters with moderate-sized hail are common when chasing storms, and most chasers can expect to pick up at least a few hail dents on their vehicles each season. Most chasers don't mind these occasional minor 'battle scars', but those with expensive vehicles might be concerned.
In rare events, a chaser could find themselves in hail larger than baseballs, which can do serious cosmetic damage to a vehicle as well as break the windshield and/or the windows. Any broken window may result in glass fragments that can cause minor cuts. For the most part, the worst hail can be easily avoided by the experienced chaser and therefore is not a big risk. An even lesser risk is the remote chance of a head/body strike by a large hailstone while standing outside, which could easily cause serious injury. Even small hail impacts can be painful to skin, so chasers should stay in their vehicle when hail is falling.
Strong Winds, Debris and Storm Aftermath High winds often topple trees and power lines, break branches, blow objects into the roadway. Again, this takes us back to the driving risk. These objects can make travel hazardous, particularly after dark. More than once I've come upon fallen power lines across the road, in one instance hitting a wire before I could stop. Debris on the road is not always easily spotted in time to stop your vehicle. In agricultural areas like the Great Plains, livestock can wander onto the road after a storm damages roadside fences. Several chasers have had close calls with cows that walked through a tornado-damaged fence onto the road. Pictured at right are cows walking on Highway 183 near Greensburg, Kansas after a tornado wiped out fences along the roadway.
In some cases, high winds can carry small debris like gravel and tree branches that can break vehicle windows. A chase vehicle in our caravan in 2001 suffered a broken rear window after wind-blown gravel shattered the glass:
Tornadoes You might be surprised that I've put tornadoes last on my list of storm chasing risks. After the May 31, 2013 tragedy, I thought long and hard about changing this section of the FAQ. The fact remains that the risk from tornadoes to chasers is still small compared to the others. The El Reno tornado on May 31, 2013 was record-breaking and highly anomalous, and while certainly tragic, is not a representative situation typical to 99.999% of tornadoes documented on chases.
Tornadoes are easy to avoid. It is actually hard to get in the path of a tornado, even on purpose. It's difficult for a chaser to even see a tornado at a distance on most chases, let alone get close enough that driving into it is even a remote possibility. Tornadoes are sort of like freight trains, moving along a track at a fairly constant speed and direction. If they do shift direction, it is usually in a gentle curving motion. All you have to do is stay out of the tornado's track and you'll be fine. Since tornadoes often travel at angles to roadways, the intersection of tornado paths and roads are few and far between, meaning that you have to be at exactly the right place at the right time to have a tornado strike you. Many chasers (including the TIV crew featured on a recent Discovery Channel series) have been making concerted efforts to make close intercepts of tornadoes for years, with very few successes. A chaser getting into a tornado accidentally is such a small risk that it is almost negligible.
Before May 31, 2013, I made the following statement here: "Now I know that eventually, a chaser will get seriously hurt or killed by a tornado. I think that's it's inevitable. But I contend that it will be a rare exception to the rule, as it has been up to this point. Tornadoes historically have not been threats to chasers, at least not one worthy of anything more than a passing mention." Now that the inevitable has happened, what should I say? I still believe that the risk from tornadoes is negligible to chasers. El Reno will certainly go into the mental "knowledge bank" of chasers, but looking at the past track record of the hobby, I don't see a justification to begin lessening emphasis on the risks from driving, for example.