Lightning Myth #4

Rubber tires aren't why you're safe in a car during a lightning storm. In strong electric fields, rubber tires actually become more conductive than insulating. You're safe in a car because the lightning will travel around the surface of the vehicle and then go to ground. This occurs because the vehicle acts like a Faraday cage. Michael Faraday, a British physicist, discovered that a metal cage would shield objects within the cage when a high potential discharge hit the cage. The metal, being a good conductor, would direct the current around the objects and discharge it safely to the ground. This process of shielding is widely used today to protect the electrostatic sensitive integrated circuits in the electronics world.

Lightning Safety

More than 1,000 people get struck by lightning every year in the United States, and more than 100 of them die as a result of the strike. Lightning is not something to toy with.

If you are caught outside in a storm, always look for appropriate shelter. Do not take any chances -- lightning can use you as a path to the earth just as easily as it can use any other object. Appropriate shelter would be a building or a car (see the "lightning myth" sidebar at the bottom of the page to find out why). If you do not have anywhere to go, then you should avoid taking shelter under trees. Trees attract lightning. Put your feet as close together as possible and crouch down with your head as low as possible without touching the ground.

Never lay down on the ground. After lightning strikes the ground, there is an electric potential that radiates outward from the point of contact. If your body is in this area, current can flow through you. You never want the current to have the ability to pass through your body. This could cause cardiac arrest, not to mention other organ damage and burns. By making your body as low to the ground as possible and minimizing the amount of your body in contact with the ground, you can lower the possibility of a lightning-related injury. If a strike were to occur near you, the current would have a much more difficult time flowing through your body in this position.

If you are indoors, stay off the phone. If you must call someone, use a cordless phone or cell phone. If lightning strikes the phone line, the strike will travel to every phone on the line (and potentially to you if you are holding the phone).

Stay away from plumbing pipes (bath tub, shower). Lightning has the ability to strike a house or near a house and impart an electrical charge to the metal pipes used for plumbing. This threat is not as great as it used to be, because PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is often used for indoor plumbing these days. If you are not sure what your pipes are made of, wait it out.

For more information on lightning and related topics, check out the links on the next page.