Do rubber tires insulate your car from lightning?

By: Kate Kershner  | 
Your car isn't necessarily a safe space during a lightning strike.
Your car is a fairly safe place to be when lightning strikes, but not because of your tires.
Lyle Leduc/Getty Images

There are some weather incidents where you don't want to find yourself sitting in traffic. Hurricanes and tornadoes come to mind, of course – any storm that can to blow your car away is going to result in a scary, unsafe situation for a commuter. But can lightning strike a car? And if so, will its occupants live to tell the tale?

For years, we've heard that there's no place more secure than your car when lightning strikes. The theory goes like this: Being in a car is your best bet to protect you from a lightning bolt, because rubber is an insulator, not a conductor, of electricity. Therefore, the rubber tires of a car will ensure you're safe and sound in your well-insulated vehicle. Incidentally, that's why you should also wear rubber-soled shoes in a lightning storm. No harm happens to a person wearing rubber shoes. That's what Grandma always said, anyway.


Well, Grandma needs to get her facts straight. Lightning can strike a car, and rubber tires (or shoe soles) aren't going to prevent it. In this article, we'll explain what happens when a car is struck by an electrical charge and how the people inside can stay safe.

The Truth Behind a Popular Belief

Rubber does not protect you in a lightning storm. Yes, rubber is indeed an electrical insulator, but your shoes or bike tires, for instance, are way too thin to protect you from a lightning strike. Here's where your grandmother is right, though – your car is a fairly safe place to be in a thunderstorm, but for a different reason entirely.

While the rubber from the tires won't protect you from lightning, the metal cage of the car certainly can. Electricity takes the path of least resistance, which is down the metal body of your car. Much like a lightning rod, a metal enclosure conducts an electric charge to the ground, leaving the inside shock-free. (That's referred to as a Faraday cage, for those seeking extra credit) [source: Skeldon].


Just Because You Stay Inside Doesn't Make You Safe

So, by remaining in your car, you're absolutely safe from any lightning that might strike, right? Not so fast. First, you need to have an enclosed, metal-framed car for this to work. In other words, convertible or fiberglass-framed cars offer zero help in a storm [source: NLSI].

Further, even if you do have a metal roof acting as a Faraday cage, you're not guaranteed to escape injury. There are a whole host of metal things to cling to or brush against in a car (door or window handles, radio dials – even the steering wheel) that will happily conduct that lightning your way.


Your car's electrical system represents yet another risk in the event of a lightning charge. The extreme high voltage of a lightning strike can disrupt or destroy crucial electrical features in your vehicle, such as braking or steering. As if that possibility isn't dangerous enough, an electrical surge can also deploy airbags, melt wiring, or ignite fuel vapors, causing a fire.

A lot can happen in a lightning strike. Your rear windshield might break, sending glass your way. You may come into contact with metal or electricity and receive a burn mark. However, in spite of these dangers, it's safer to be inside your vehicle than outside of it.


How to Plan Ahead

The next time the sky goes dark and thunder begins to rumble, don't panic! By remembering some key tips, you can limit your chances of being struck by lightning.

You don't want to be the tallest object in the area, so if you're caught in a field or parking lot, stay low to the ground. For the same reason, never take shelter underneath tall objects like trees or metal structures. You'll also want to steer clear of large bodies of water or high-altitude locations.


Your best bet if you're in a car during a storm? Pull over, turn off your engine, turn on your emergency lights, and sit quietly with your hands to yourself [source: NLSI]. Grandma would approve.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Environment Canada. "Lightning FAQs." Sept. 10, 2013. (Dec. 16, 2014)
  • National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI). "Vehicles and Lightning." 2015. (Dec. 16, 2014)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Lightning Safety Rules." 2015. (Dec. 16, 2014)
  • Newton Ask a Scientist. "Cars and lightning." 2000–2001. (Dec. 16, 2014)
  • Skeldon, Ken. "Faraday Cage." University of Glasgow. 2015. (Dec. 16, 2014)