NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip may rip around the racetrack, but he slams on the brakes when it comes to storm-flooded streets.
"Water can be deceptive, especially at night, and all it takes is a few inches to cause a crash or carry your car or truck downstream," Waltrip says in a 30-second public service announcement for the National Weather Service.
The Weather Service has recruited Waltrip to spread the crucial message that driving and flooding can be a deadly mix, particularly during or after a hurricane.
About 130 people die in floods each year, and of those, 52 percent are vehicle related. Although the warning mainly is aimed at states with hilly terrain, where flash flooding is common, Florida's flat terrain can be dangerous when submerged.
Last October, after Hurricane Irene swamped South Florida, three drivers unwittingly drove into deep water and died. Five others were electrocuted after walking into pools of water, concealing fallen power lines.
"Our message here is simple," said Scott Gudes, a deputy undersecretary for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the Weather Service. "It only takes 6 inches of running water to sweep you off your feet or make you lose control of your car or truck."
As part of the flood-safety campaign, National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield has criticized automotive manufacturers because their TV ads imply SUVs and pickups can plow over any kind of terrain.
Auto ads criticized
"It gives the impression that cars or trucks can go anywhere, and that's the wrong message," Mayfield says.
Some manufacturers said it is not their intent to suggest their vehicles can overcome deep water, but rather to display ruggedness or versatility.
"Obviously, we would never want to encourage anybody to do anything unsafe," said Heather May, spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler of Auburn Hills, Mich., which makes Jeeps.
"We take great pains to portray responsible use of SUVs, both on and off the road," said Celeste Speier, spokeswoman for American Suzuki Motor Corp., of Brea, Calif.
Just the same, a study by the National Hurricane Center showed that 600 people died as a result of inland flooding between 1970 and 1999, and 23 percent of those were in vehicles.
Peril to kids, too
Ed Rappaport, chief of the center's technical support branch, who conducted the study, said vehicle deaths are just one deadly aspect of inland flooding. Another major problem is that children play in high water during and after a storm, leaving them vulnerable to being washed away or falling into an unseen pit.
Waltrip's public service announcement, which he made for free, has been made available via satellite to television stations across the country, said Bob Chartuk, a National Weather Service spokesman in Silver Springs, Md.
He said he was unsure how many stations would air it.
Waltrip is based in North Carolina, where Hurricane Floyd killed 56 people in September, most of those from inland flooding.
"If I can help the National Weather Service prevent even one flood-related death, I'd consider this public service effort a great success," Waltrip said.
Weather experts have revved up their call for caution because of a new era of intense hurricane activity.
Hurricane forecaster William Gray of Colorado State University has increased his prediction from 11 to 12 named storms this season. He projects eight of those will become hurricanes, with winds of at least 74 mph, and four of those will have winds of at least 111 mph.
Last year, there were 12 named storms, including eight hurricanes, of which five were major hurricanes.
The main reason for the increase, Gray said, is because La Niña, a cooling condition of the eastern Pacific Ocean and which nurtures hurricane development in the Atlantic, will exert its influence through the season.
"With the buildup of coastal areas, especially in the Southeast United States, I think we're going to see more hurricane damage than we've ever seen in this country."