I have long acknowledged the threat of distracted driving (and the hazards of the roads in general) to storm chasers. In my FAQ item on the dangers of chasing, I've always ranked it as the number 1 risk. And the statistics prove it. Even post-El Reno, it's obvious to any experienced chaser that the dangers of the highways still far surpass that from tornadoes, and always will. It took an exceptional tornado to be the first real threat to chasers - the vast majority of them are not a danger to us. The driving risk, on the other hand, is a real one we face on every single chase.
I am not going to defend the actions and driving habits of the TWC chasers. As I understand, the accident clearly was an avoidable one in which the cause and at-fault party is indisputable. I will say, however, that all it would take for you or me to cause (or be the victim of) a similar tragedy would be a brief moment of distraction at just the right time. The consequences could be just as severe.
The day after the Texas accident, I passed through the city of St. Louis to embark on a storm chase into central Missouri. During the course of about 15 minutes, I witnessed these incidents, which my front dashcam captured:
I was taken by the fact that in 15 minutes, I had witnessed more distracted and careless driving than I have cumulatively from storm chasers over the past 4 years or more. I could spend 2 or 3 hours in any city, any county in the USA, even in rural Kansas - and find plenty of examples of the same by everyday drivers.
I do not want to minimize or normalize the weight of what has happened this week. Distracted and irresponsible driving behavior is a threat in storm chasing, to be sure - but it's disingenuous to single out chasing as the only realm where this problem exists. The everyday roads are rife with distracted, aggressive and careless driving. In fact, the statistics show that texting is now outpacing drunk driving in the injury tolls on the road, and is catching up to the DUI death tolls [source]. And if we are honest with ourselves, all of us - chasers and non-chasers alike - have, to varying degrees, been guilty of this type of risky behavior.
The loss of life we saw on March 28 is a wake-up call for the storm chasing world. But it also should be a wake-up call to everyone on the roads. What happened in Spur, Texas also takes place several times every day somewhere in the USA, and it could happen to you tomorrow. Here are stop-sign-running examples caused by distracted driving from this week alone that I found from a cursory web search:
Whether it is on a storm chase, the daily commute, the trip to the grocery store or the family vacation, the risks from driving do not discriminate between our reasons for being on the road. Chasing or not, these hazards are a reality for everyone - a fact that this time, tragically hits very close to home. Hopefully its lesson can be learned both inside and outside of the storm chasing community.