Are You Safe From Lightning When Sitting In a Car?

You might think that you have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting struck by lightning, but you would be wrong. According to the CDC, the odds of getting struck by lightning in a given year is one and 500,000. But that doesn’t mean that you should run around in a wet open field during a lightning storm. In that case, you’ll need to find shelter, and believe it or not, your car is a good place to be.

Sonoran Desert rainstorm, a summer monsoon thunderstorm with cloud-to-ground lightning strikes and light trails from cars on the roadway.
Sonoran Desert rainstorm, a summer monsoon thunderstorm with cloud-to-ground lightning strikes and light trails from cars on the roadway. | Getty Images

A car is a safe place to be during a lightning storm, but not because of the tires

It’s a common misconception that a car’s tires are what protect its occupants when it’s struck by lightning. The thought here is that since the tires are made of rubber, the entire car is grounded so the occupants are protected. According to NBC 12, a lightning bolt is so powerful that it could actually go through the tires and melt them.

In reality, it’s the car’s metal cage that protects the occupants, not the tires. Of course, that might not make sense at first, considering metal is a good conductor of electricity. But the real science of it is that the car’s metal cage, or structure, redirects the energy from the lightning strike around the vehicle’s occupants and safely into the ground.

If you would like a demonstration, check out this video from Top Gear:

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No, convertible cars will not protect you from lightning

Unfortunately, if you own a convertible car, then you might as well be in that wet open field with your shoes off because you won’t be protected. However, if you do end up in a lightning storm in a car with an actual roof, then it’s important to follow these tips:

  • Keep your hands in your lap until the storm passes
  • Don’t touch anything metal
  • Make sure the windows are closed
  • Remain calm

More tips for staying safe during a lightning storm

Nighttime storm on an interstate highway, with a lightning strike and light trails from passing cars and trucks.
Nighttime storm on an interstate highway, with a lightning strike and light trails from passing cars and trucks. | Getty Images

While a car is a good place for shelter during a lightning storm, being inside a sturdy building is even better. If you live in a part of the country where lightning storms are prevalent during the spring and summer months, then here are some additional tips for staying safe:

  • Pay attention to the weather forecast and plan ahead so the you’re in a safe area
  • If you’re outside when a storm hits, seek shelter as soon as you start hearing thunder. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles ahead of a thunder storm and it typically happens in areas where it’s not raining.
  • Buildings and non-convertible vehicles are the only safe places from lightning. Do not hide under a picnic table, a tree, a tent, a portable restroom, etc. Just get to safety!
  • When you’re inside a building, don’t use a landline or a computer. Also, avoid taking a shower or using anything that’s plugged into a wall

Lastly, if you find yourself in the middle of a field during a lightning storm, it’s a good idea to find the lowest spot possible and crouch into a ball. The idea here is to make yourself as small as possible to avoid getting struck.

The odds of getting struck by lightning may only be one in 500,000, but that’s still better odds than hitting the lottery. Make sure to play it safe and stay inside.

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