Friday, February 10, 2012

The dangers of chasing

The recent tragic and untimely death of Andy Gabrielson adds his name to the growing list of storm chasers who have died.  I didn't know Andy and what I want to say herein doesn't depend on that.  His loss is terrible for his friends and family, and painful to me, despite our never having met.  We had two other vehicle accidents claim chasers while not actually chasing, and many of us were devastated with the suicide death of another chaser.

But Andy Gabrielson's loss underscores something I long have said about chasing ... the greatest danger to chasers has been the danger we all face whenever we get in our vehicles and set out on the road to any destination.  This primary danger is not associated at all with the destination.  We lose 40,000 Americans on the road every year, but somehow most of us, including chasers, drive under the assumption that it won't happen to us!  The evidence is that with a population of roughly 300 million souls, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident in a year are 40,000/300,000,000 = 0.00013, or 1.3 chances in 10,000.  Pretty low probability, right?   In 2011, a terrible year for tornadoes, around 550 people died as a direct result of tornadoes.  In 2011, an anomalous year for tornado fatalities, the chances of an American dying in a tornado that year were 550/300,000,000 = 0.00000183, or 1.8 chances in a million!  No chasers died as a result of tornadoes in 2011, nor in any other year ... so far.

Storm chasing has been going on since the mid-1950s, although chasing has experienced surges of participation since then, and it now has many more participants than I ever imagined possible when I started chasing in 1972.  2012 is my 40th year of chasing.  Some of the things I've thought about chasing have proven to be pretty much wrong.  Unfortunately, my concern with the dangers of the road has proven to be justified.  You don't have to be an irresponsible "yahoo" chaser to put yourself at risk.  Any chaser on the road is at risk!

Many people are now doing this, and so we have the prospect of having more chasers killed as time passes.  Given that there may be more than 1000 storm chasers nowadays, with an ever increasing number of "extreme" chasers who are ready to flirt with the danger of being within a tornado, it seems likely that a storm eventually will claim the life of a chaser for the first time.  In my essay about chasing with responsibility and safety, I listed the primary dangers associated with chasing - in order of importance according to my essay, they are:
  1. Being on the road
  2. Lightning
  3. The storm
We have yet to have a chaser killed by lightning.  Anyone who has chased likely has stories of near-misses by lightning strikes.  I know I have several.  Eventually, it seems inevitable that our luck will run out.  It seems that lightning inevitably will claim its first chaser life.  To me, the only question is whether or not the risks being taken by "extreme" chasers will result in the storm claiming its first fatality before lightning claims its first victim among chasers.  Apparently, based on 40+ years of storm chasing, dangers from the storm associated with storm chasing are sufficiently low that we have yet to see the first storm-related chaser fatality, despite the proliferation of what I see as stupid risks being taken by storm chasers.  I hope our luck continues.  I have no wish to see such a thing happen in my lifetime.


Jeff Snyder said...

Nice post as usual, Chuck. I know of six chasers who were members of Stormtrack that have passed away since 2005, and, if I recall correctly, four of the six were 30 years or younger. I think the latter observation is likely the result of the demographics of this hobby, as work and family obligations tend to reduce miles we spend chasing as people get older. I'll include the Stormtrack thread for each since they tend to include some memorials and information about each chaser:

Andy Gabrielson (2/4/12)
Matt Hughes (5/26/10)
Eric Flescher (3/2/10)
Fabian Guerra (6/5/09)
Eric Nguyen (9/9/07)
Jeff Wear (7/11/05)

Three of the unfortunate deaths (Andy, Fabian, and Jeff) were auto-/driving-related. As chasers, most of us tend to spend a lot of time on the road, including a lot of time driving very late at night (or all night), sometimes several days in a row on limited sleep. Although traffic congestion tends not to be a significant problem away from the storms in the Plains, many still have to contend with wildlife, unfamiliar roads, and, at times, weather-related driving hazards (e.g. very heavy rain). This doesn't speak of non-chasing driving hazards either, as you note.

Anonymous said...

Hello Chuck,

Great post and I concur with your sentiments. When I started chasing in 1996, I only considered the storm risks and not the mere risk of driving. In the case of Andy, he was returning home from a chase and as you know, a careless drunk driver took him away. That's a risk we all face once we get behind the wheel.

For me, storm chasing is my chance to get away from all the anguish of life and be with nature in its pure splendor. Seeing a tornado is always mystical, but just being alone on the plains with a meso nearby is spellbinding. The full view of the greatest engine ever conceived mesmerizes me.

I also want to thank you for your invaluable contributions to storm chasing, both as a scientist and chaser. I've personally benefitted from your work.

Cheers and safe travels for you in the 2012 season. I hope to see you out there.


Roger Edwards said...

While the "XTREME INSANE" yahoos certainly are heightening their risks to themselves and others through aggressive maneuvers and reckless driving, we're all prone to the traffic crash or lightning strike. The first chaser killed by lightning or by a vehicle crash while on a storm could be you or me--despite our best efforts at safety. It's a known risk we take simply by being out there, on wet roads and under thunderstorms.

So much of it truly is out of our control. Now isn't that motivation enough to make the best of what we *do* control, which is our own situational awareness and driving practices? We all make mistakes, but that's no excuse for making more on purpose.

I don't understand why so many storm observers heighten that risk by standing out there filming amidst an ongoing bombardment of CGs, passing over hilltops and around blind curves, pulling out into traffic without looking, stepping in front of traffic, parking at least partway in traffic lanes, leaving equipment in the road, blocking the road, etc. It's as if people lose any sense of sanity in the rush of the moment--or it's unadulterated selfishness. The message: "I'm more important than you, which is why I (for example) pulled this radar truck straight across ongoing traffic."

I don't wish horrible outcomes on anybody either, but the sheer numbers of people who are trying to chase storms is increasing the dangers year by year. And the risk isn't just to those doing idiotic maneuvers; it's a growing risk to us all.

Chuck Doswell said...


I couldn't agree more. I'm not immune from dangers on the road and I could be the one killed by a storm for having made one bad decision in the heat of a chase. I'm sure my detractors would be happy to highlight the apparent hypocrisy if I were to be such a victim, in the same way they delighted in berating Chris Novy for his near-miss. I know I took some heat from the haters for the illegal Canadian border crossing, which actually was based on NOT being caught by the supercell storm we'd been chasing.

Being a careful, responsible chaser doesn't preclude the possibility of making a bad decison in the heat of a chase - ask Amos Magliocco. He and the late Eric Nguyen admitted their error, as did Chris Novy - they didn't try to rationalize what they did or claim they didn't make any mistakes. Instead, they admitted their error and cautioned others not to do the same. In my book, that's both honorable and responsible.

Pushing the safety envelope is very different from making one bad decision. But the result can be indistinguishable at a superficial level.

Brad Berry said...

Wow. I just saw this now. I haven't chased in years, but I do remember the passing of Jeff Wear. I remember I even got commemorative "COPUNCH" license plates for my Cherokee when Jeff went. It seems like there's been a streak of chaser community deaths since him.

Be careful out there. Roadway dangers are huge for even the average chaser. Even more than that, looking at some others in the list, if you're thinking that killing yourself is an escape, get some help.

Eric Flescher? Meningitis? That's incredibly rough, and a terrible way to go.

Break the streak guys. Break the streak.