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.