Few will deny that the weather in recent years seemingly has gotten wilder; hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards make big news. These weather systems, often churned up by cyclical atmospheric events, such as El Niño and La Niña, have sometimes ventured into abnormal territory. New York City, for example, has experienced tornadoes, at least one hurricane and several crippling blizzards.

With all the hazards and destruction to electrical systems, these weather phenomena present, contractors often are called for help, which may mean getting to a site in dangerous conditions. In these extremes, driving presents unique risks well before a contractor even dons a helmet and tool belt.

Depending on the type of weather you’re facing, there are several ways to keep safe while driving.

A hurricane is a tropical storm with winds that have reached at least 74 mph and may increase to speeds of 160 mph. The primary dangers associated with a hurricane include torrential rains (that often cause flooding), high winds, storm surges and the possibility of spawned tornadoes. These storms begin over the open ocean and can last for two weeks or more. Because of their long life, the storm’s path can be predicted somewhat and evacuations ordered when and where necessary. Safe driving recommendations include the following:

• Evacuate sooner rather than later. Even contractors who might be able to help with a recovery should leave if they get an evacuation order. By leaving early, you won’t run the risk of getting stuck in traffic and having to ride out the storm in your vehicle.
• Avoid flooded streets. Standing water can be deeper than it looks and underlying currents could be strong enough to carry your vehicle away. In addition, driving through deep water can cause the engine to stall, possibly trapping you in rising water. Keep in mind that more than half of all hurricane-related deaths result from inland flooding. Of these deaths, one in four people drowned in a car.
• Beware of fallen wires. As an electrical contractor, you, of course, know the dangers of downed, energized power lines. Your vehicle may protect you, but don’t be overconfident and risk getting stuck in an area that could make it hard for emergency crews to help.
• Seek shelter. The strong winds of a hurricane can blow your vehicle off the road. If you feel you’re having trouble controlling your vehicle, seek shelter. Any repairs you have to make will still be there when the storm passes.

Many of the tips to drive safely in a tornado will be similar to those for driving in a hurricane; however, they are very different storms. A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending between and in contact with a cloud and the earth’s surface. They are usually generated by severe thunderstorms and can attain wind speeds exceeding 200 mph. Tornadoes typically hit with very little warning, not allowing much time to prepare, much less seek shelter. Peak tornado season is from March through early summer with as many as 1,000 occurring each year throughout the United States, especially in the Midwest.

Follow these tips:

• Instead of attempting to flee in your vehicle, it’s best to seek shelter in a sturdy center room, such as a bathroom or closet, of a nearby building.
• If you’re caught in the field and observe a tornado touching down, don’t try to outrun it in your vehicle. Twisters often change direction quickly and can blindside a vehicle.
• Don’t drive during tornado conditions!
• Be prepared with a disaster kit in your vehicle. It should include a first aid kit, battery-powered radio, flashlight, extra batteries, work gloves and extra vehicle keys. Take the kit with you, if possible, when you leave your vehicle.
• If there’s no indoor shelter nearby, lie in a ditch or low-lying area away from the vehicle. Be aware, though, of the possibility of flooding.

Strong winds are the recurring theme of these storms, and likewise, wind strength is the main characteristic of a blizzard. Blizzards boast winds in excess of 35 mph, with blowing or drifting snow, that reduces visibility to a quarter of a mile or less. Blizzards typically last more than 3 hours. A blizzard has the potential to paralyze an area for several days, especially in locations where snowfall is rare. Typically, these storms are slow moving, which allows time for preparation. If you must drive, remember the following:

• Clear all snow from your windshield, mirrors, windows, headlights and brake lights. You need the best field of vision when driving in a blizzard.
• Turn on your wipers and headlights.
• Drive under the speed limit. Ice, heavy snow and poor visibility require longer following and stopping distances.
• It’s easier to drive in tracks that have already been established. When driving in fresh snow, you’ll have more difficulty seeing the road edges and locating slippery areas.

When faced with these extreme weather conditions, the safest thing is not to drive. Unfortunately, driving is sometimes necessary. By taking it slow and being aware of the road conditions, you increase your chances of arriving at your destination safely.


KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.